April 13, 2016
by Fehmida

How Was Royal Power Expressed In The Iron Age?

By Fehmida Shah

The early states of Iron Age Levant invested a great deal in the ideological justification of kingship through various representational means. Propaganda methods were used to ensure that there was ‘a set of symbolic forms by which the dynasty expressed its right to rule’. These symbolic forms became a vehicle to disseminate ideas to different audiences and overcome opposition in order to sustain royal power. Whitelam stated that ‘symbols of power penetrate different levels of society with varying degrees of success’.1 He proposed that the greatest symbolic powers were aimed at the urban elite in city centres, who posed more of a possible threat than the rural village community. Formation of a statehood often meant structural transformations and the transfer of lands over to the ruler. Therefore, the sovereign had to develop ideological means to legitimise his rule over competing claims from other groups.

A ruler may use military might to reign his/her subjects with an iron fist, which is more often than not the case, however a more efficient and less costly method would be the use of propaganda through symbolic forms such as building monuments, defence systems, water administration, writing and cultural development. Several of these methods will be summarised in this essay.


The Davidic Monarchies

Even though the archaeological evidence in the Iron Age Levant is somewhat thin on the ground, scholars have found traces of evidence as well as examples elsewhere to use as analogies. Nuggets of information can also be gleaned from supporting Biblical references. Setting aside the controversy and implications on whether one acknowledges the high or low chronologies of the united monarchy under Saul and David, archaeological evidence is still relatively sparse. However, during Solomon’s reign ‘there was a period that saw the development of Israelite monumental art and architecture.’2 Excavations in Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer have revealed several aspects of this.



Royal fortifications demonstrated ‘the military might and the ability of the king to defend state territory’3 assuring stability for an Iron Age society that was largely agrarian.

According to the biblical reference (1 Kings 9:15), Hazor along with Gezer and Megiddo, were significantly fortified and expanded by Solomon. The remains at Hazor illustrate a highly characteristic six chambered gate and casemate wall system that would have ‘communicated the strength and power of its inhabitants by its sheer size and fine architectural execution.’4 The impressive city gates at Megiddo and Gezer, were skilfully construction with finely worked ashlar blocks, known to be reserved for royal buildings.  All three sites were transformed in to complex fortified administration centres.

Fortification/Gates and Casemate Walls: During the 10th century Megiddo was fortified with a massive six-chambered gate and large casemate walls. A casemate wall is a double wall partitioned into chambers, usually built with large ashlar square shaped stones. These Iron Age gates and casemate walls are similar in structure and design to those at Gezer and Hazor.


Palaces and Temples

Palaces and temples are the epitome of royal expressions of power. The Solomonic palace and temple complex has little archaeological evidence in comparison with the comprehensive Biblical records. Nonetheless, many of the Bible descriptive features are recognisable in the temples of Phoenicia, Egypt and Mesopotamia. For both temple and palace, Solomon imported cedar wood from Lebanon (1 Kings 7:1-12).  Biblical description of the First Temple includes a longroom temple with a vestibule hall and a separate room for the Holy of Holies. Two columns were placed in the vestibule hall, with lavish furnishings and fittings, a throne room, residential quarters and a luxurious palace. The walls were covered with wooden panels embellished with gold-leaf overlay. A plaza or courtyard surrounding the sacred residence of the god, marked with stones. This is a feature common throughout ancient Semitic religions. Both palace and temple were political statements that portrayed wealth, status and the ability to obtain resources. Other excavations from Lachish, Hazor, Megiddo and Samaria have found ashlar masonry, proto-ionic capitals, ivories and storehouses.

The head of the political state in Iron Age Levant was also the head of the religious state. The sanctified area of the temple was limited to the king and priests, conveying to the general populace the divine connection that the king had with god. Regarding the fortified exterior of Solomon’s temple, Whitelam explains, ‘The dwelling place of the deity was restricted to the king and his cultic functionaries. This expressed more than anything else, how the king was at the sacred centre, while the rest of the population was only related to this through the monarch.’5

Placing religious centres in key location can also be seen as an expressing of royal power. Jeroboam, the first king of the Northern Israelite Kingdom, established strategic places of worship in Bethel and Dan. Bethel to the south was in close proximity to Jerusalem and had religious significance, being associated with patriarchal traditions.  Dan was close to international trade routes and would gain favour with the northernmost tribes, redirecting the pilgrimage away from Jerusalem. Both Bethal and Dan were on the northern and southern edges of Jeroboam’s kingdom and would advantageously hem in his subjects and act ‘as a symbolic choice demonstrating his dominion.’6

In a later period, Samaria was an apparent expression of Israelite royal power and wealth attributed to the sovereignty of Omri and Ahab. The royal acropolis was a large rectangular enclosure reminiscent of Canaanite/Phoenician palaces from the Middle Bronze Age. The Omride northern kingdom of Israel had a diverse population. The capital city and highlands of Samaria were inhabited by the Israelites and the northern lowlands were home to native Canaanites. The northeast borders on the Aram- Damascus territories had a partially Aramaic population and the highlands of Galilee and the northern coasts were inhabited by Phoenician groups. Israel Finkelstein put forward that ‘The ethnic and cultural diversity of the Northern kingdom seems to provide the background for the monumental architecture of the Omrides. State – establishing dynasties that engage in territorial expansion in to neighbouring ‘foreign’ lands are in urgent need of legitimacy.’7 With the competing state in neighbouring Damascus, the Omrides had to appease the population and secure its allegiance. The fortified compounds on the Jezreel valley and Hazor, which borders Damascus, therefore had two key objectives, to impress and to control the population.


Water Management

A main feature of the Iron Age and perhaps an expression of royal power was the highly sophisticated urban water management systems found at Jerusalem, Megiddo, Arad, Beer-Sheva, Hazor, Gibeon and other regions throughout the country. The construction of these projects would require centralised planning, organisation and great engineering skills. Hezekiah’s tunnel in Jerusalem is referred to in the biblical narrative (2 Kings 20:20) as a major royal accomplishment since the king ‘bought water into the city.’


Writing and Administration

Hebrew writing from the Iron IIB period illustrates the administrative apparatus of the royal statehood. It would be hard to imagine how a state could have effectively managed its resources and administration without active scribes engaged in writing letters and ensuring the state ran smoothly. In the Israelite Capital of Samaria, one hundred pieces of ostraca were found, demonstrating the implementation of a tax system or royal supply system. ‘By engaging in a series of writing practices that were predicated on the existence of Israel as a totality, Israel’s scribes, in turn helped generate the state hegemony.’8

Writing on various media such as coins, seals and steles, helped the head of state make visually public their rightful claim of rule. Lachish is prominent for having many examples of a special type of Judahite storage jar, stamped with the word lmlk “belonging to the king” on the handle. Other features include a four winged scarab beetle or a two-winged sun disk. These stamp seals are associated with king Hezekiah’s reign in the late 8th and early 7th century BC. These lmlk jars have also been found at other Iron Age Israelite sites.9 The Tel Dan stele authored by either, the king of Damascus, Hazael or one of his sons, boasts commemorative victories over local ancient peoples including ‘Israel’ and the ‘House of David.’ The king of Moab’s Mesha stele inscriptions tell of Mesha’s victories, building projects, restoring the fortifications of his strong places and building a palace and reservoirs for water.10

LMLK seal : handle of storage jar with "belonging to the king, Hebron" (Lakish, late 8th BCE). Israel Museum, Jerusalem

LMLK seal : handle of storage jar with “belonging to the king, Hebron” (Lakish, late 8th BCE). Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Propaganda through royal power was imperative to the continued existence of the early states in Iron Age Levant. Success or failure depended on the ruling monarch to convince the populace of his right and strength to rule. Examples in history of royal expressions of power include the awe-inspiring monuments from empires of ancient Rome and the embodiment of sacred power of the Egyptian monarch. Each of which, utilised symbolic forms to display their rightful authority. More recent, and without a doubt inspired by Rome, the Nazi party’s vast overstated monumental architecture would promote an absolute emphasis on nationalism, captivating a whole nation, as it did. Indeed an absence of royal expressions of power may even have dire consequences for the ruler. Whitelam suggests, ‘Negligence of symbolic manipulation, on the other hand, can bring reversal and even defeat.’11 Visual symbolic forms of propaganda is often more persuasive than repression and force, and can be the defining line between a supreme ruling head of state and a small town tribal chief.

By Fehmida Shah




1) The symbols of power by Whitelam, page166

2) The symbols of power by Whitelam, page 168 (Dever 1982:)

3) The symbols of power by Whitelam, page 169

4)  The symbols of power by Whitelam, page 169

5) The symbols of power by Whitelam, page 172

6) Dinner at Dan: Biblical and Archaeological Evidence for Sacred Feasts at Iron Age II by Jonathan S Greer, page 31

7) Symbiosis, Symbolism, and the Power of the Past by By William G. Dever, Seymour Gitin, excerpt from Israel Finkelstein

8) Contextualizing Israel’s Sacred Writings Brian B. Schmidt, page 142

9) http://members.bib-arch.org/publication.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=31&Issue=4&ArticleID=8)

10) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesha_Stele

11) The symbols of power by Whitelam, page 168




Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, 3 Dec 2007 by A Mazar

Symbiosis, Symbolism, and the Power of the Past by By William G. Dever, Seymour Gitin

The Archaeology of Ancient Israel, 1 Feb 1994 by Amnon Ben-Tor and R. Greenberg


April 13, 2016
by Fehmida

Pakistan’s Buddhist past


Buddhism took root in modern day Pakistan some 2,300 years ago under the Mauryan king Ashoka, whom Nehru once called “greater than any king or emperor.” Buddhism has a long history in the Pakistan region . Buddhist scholar Kumāralabdha (童受) of Taxila was comparable to Aryadeva, Aśvaghoṣa and Nagarjuna. The ancient metropolis of Taxila was a city of the Gandharan civilization, sometimes known as one of its capitals, whose history can be traced from early microlithic communities at the Khanpur caves up to almost 1000 CE. Taxila was a hub of Buddhism, a centre of learning, an urban metropolis


Gandhara is the region that now comprise of Peshawar valley, Mardan, Swat, Dir, Malakand, and Bajuaur agencies in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), Taxila in the Punjab, and up to Jalalabad in Afghanistan. It is in this region that the Gandhara civilization emerged and became the cradle of Buddhism. It was from here that Buddhism spread towards east as far away as Japan and Korea.

The intriguing record of Gandhara civilization, discovered in the 20th century, are found in the archeological sites spread over Taxila, Swat and other parts of NWFP. The rock carving and the petroglyphs along the ancient Silk Road (Karakoram Highway) also provide fascinating record of the history of Gandhara.

Buddhist Ruins of Takht-i-Bahi (c. 1c. BC), Pakistan

Buddhist Ruins of Takht-i-Bahi (c. 1c. BC), Pakistan

Taxila is the abode of many Buddhist establishments. Taxila, the main centre of Gandhara, is over 3,000 years old. It had attracted Alexander the great from Macedonia in 326 BC, with whom the influence of Greek culture came to this part of the world. Taxila later came under the Mauryan dynasty and reached a remarkable matured level of development under Ashoka. During the year 2 BC, Buddhism was adopted as the state religion, which flourished and prevailed for over 1,000 years, until the year 10 AD. During this time Taxila, Swat and Charsadda (old Pushkalavati) became three important centers for culture, trade and learning. Hundreds of monasteries and stupas were built together with Greek and Kushan towns such as Sirkap and Sirsukh, both in The Gandhara civilization was not only the centre of spiritual influence but also the cradle of the world famous Gandhara culture, art and learning. It was from these centers that a unique art of sculpture originated which is known as Gandhara Art all over the world. Today the Gandhara sculptures occupy a prominent place in the museums of England, France, Germany, USA, Japan, Korea, China, India and Afghanistan, together with many private collections world over, as well as a vast collection in the museums of Pakistan. Buddhism left a monumental and rich legacy of art and architecture in Pakistan. Despite the vagaries of centuries, the Gandhara region preserved a lot of the heritage in craft and art. Much of this legacy is visible even today in Pakistan.

Early Buddha images were without idols.

The very earliest examples of Buddhist Art are not iconic but aniconic images and were popular in the Sub-continent even after the death of the Buddha. This is because the Buddha himself did not sanction personal worship or the making of images. As Siddhatha Guatama was a Buddha, a self-perfected, self-enlightened human being, he was a human role model to be followed but not idolized. Of himself he said, ‘Buddha’s only point the way’. This is why the earliest artistic tributes to the Buddha were abstract symbols indicative of major events and achievements in his last life, and in some cases his previous lives. Some of these early representations of the Buddha include the footprints of the Buddha, which were often created at a place where he was known to have walked. Among the aniconic images, the footprints of the Buddha were found in the Swat valley and, now can be seen in the Swat Museum.

Footprint of the Buddha. 1st century, Gandhara.

When Buddha passed away, His relics (or ashes) were distributed to seven kings who built stupas over them for veneration. The emperor Ashoka was later said to have dug them out, and distributed the ashes over a wider area, and built 84,000 stupas. With the stupas in place, to dedicate veneration, disciples then initiated ‘stupa pujas’. With the proliferation of Buddhist stupas, stupa pujas evolved into a ritual act. Harmarajika stupa (Taxila) and Butkarha (Swat) stupa at Jamal Garha were among the earliest stupas of Gandhara. These had been erected on the orders of king Ashoka and contained the real relics of the Buddha.

At first, the object of veneration was the stupa itself. In time, this symbol was replaced by a more human image. The Gandhara schools is probably credited with the first representation of the Buddha in human form, the portrayal of Buddha in his human shape, rather than shown as symbolic.

After the invasion of the Hellenistic army, when Alexandra the great conquered the territory of Bactria, human images of Buddha appeared more widely. The innovative anthropomorphic Buddha appearance was obviously inspired by the style of Hellenistic artists, and it immediately reached a very high level of sculptural sophistication. The monuments and sculptures of Buddha from this period influenced Buddhist art and transformed it forever.

The Buddha of this time looked much like the Belvedere Apollo (330 AD), beautiful and dressed in Hellenistic style. He is shown in a light toga, with a halo, the contrapposto stance of the upright figures, classical Mediterranean curly hair, and the top-knot. Some of the Buddha statues were also made using the Greek technique of creating the hands and feet in marble, changing the face of Buddha forever.

As Buddhist Art developed and spread outside India, the styles developed here were imitated. For example, in China the Gandhara style was imitated in images made of bronze, with a gradual change in the features of these images.

Swat, the land of romance and beauty, is celebrated throughout the world as the holy land of Buddhist learning and piety. Swat acquired fame as a place of Buddhist pilgrimage. Buddhist tradition holds that the Buddha himself came to Swat during his last reincarnation as the Guatama Buddha and preached to the people here. It is said that the Swat was filled with fourteen hundred imposing and beautiful stupas and monasteries, which housed as many as 6,000 gold images of the Buddhist pantheon for worship and education. There are now more than 400 Buddhist sites covering and area of 160 Km in Swat valley only. Among the important Buddhist excavation in swat an important one is Butkarha-I, containing the original relics of the Buddha.

Among the numerous Buddhist monuments present in Pakistan a few important ones, from historical and religious point of view, are:

Dharamarajika Stupa

Dhararaja, a title of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, in the middle of the 3rd century, erected the Dharamarajika Stupa, the oldest Buddhist monument in Taxila. The Dharamarajika Stupa contained the sacred relics of the Buddha and the silver scroll commemorating the relics. A wealth of gold and silver coins, gems, jewellery and other antiques were discovered here and are housed in the Taxila museum.  


Takht-i-Bhai is another well-known and preserved monument, a Buddhist monastery located on a rocky ridge about 10 miles northeast of Mardan. This structure dates back to two to five century AD and stands 600 feet above the plane. The feature, which distinguishes this site from others, is its architectural diversity and its romantic mountain setting. The uphill approach has helped in the preservation of the monument.

The exposed buildings here include the main stupa and two courtyards in different terraces surrounded by votive stupa and shrines, the monastic quadrangles surrounded by cells for the monks, and a large hall of assembly. In one of the stupa courtyard is a line of colossal Buddhas, which were originally 16 to 20 feet high.

The site’s fragmentary sculptures in stone and stucco are a considerable wealth but its most remarkable feature is the peculiar design and arrangement of the small shrines, which surround the main stupa. These shrines stood upon a continuous sculptured podium and were crowned alternately with stupa-like finials forming an ensemble. The beauty and grandeur provided by the entire composition is unparallel in the Buddhist world.

Takht-i-Bhai had a wealth of ancient Buddhist remains. A long range of different sized Buddha and Buddhistavvas from Takht-i-Bhai fill many museums. Some of the best pieces of Gandhara sculpture, now to be found in the museums of Europe, were originally recovered from Takht-i-Bhai.

In 2012 the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) indicated that the contemporary Buddhist population of Pakistan was minuscule with 1,492 adult holders of national identity cards (CNICs). The total population of Buddhists is therefore unlikely to be more than a few thousand today.



January 25, 2016
by Fehmida

The Rebel Virgins and Desert Mothers Who Have Been Written Out of Christianity’s Early History

I. From Silk Robes to Hairshirts

When Jerome, the Catholic priest and scholar, arrived in Rome in the middle of the fourth century, he discovered a circle of noblewomen living in elaborate homes on the Aventine Hill who were nothing like their neighbors.

They’d given up their silk clothes and pearl earrings, the hairstyles and rouge and musk, even bathing, as signs of vanity, and were now wearing coarse robes made of goat’s hair. They stayed almost entirely in their houses, fasting and praying, discussing Scripture; in secret, they might visit a nearby basilica or martyr’s tomb. They never allowed themselves to rest on couches or cushions of any kind, and at night they slept on thin mats on the floor—though they hardly slept, spending those hours, instead, crying and praying. Most importantly, these women—some of them widows, some only recently of marrying age, all converts to Christianity—had each taken a vow of chastity.

Their ringleader was Marcella, a famous beauty, now a widow, who lived with her mother. No one was sure where she’d gotten the idea for this improvised monastic network, but when her husband died only months after her marriage, Marcella embraced a life that few of her class would ever understand.

Mount of Olives

The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, where Melania established two monastic communities. (Photo: Godot13 /WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Many of the female leaders of Christianity—in the Catholic Church in particular, with its 1.25 billion followers around the world—are barred from being fully ordained and are closely overseen by men. But this was not always the case. Scores of early Christian women—like Marcella, the desert-dwelling Susan, or the scholars Melania and Paula—embraced radical lives, helping the young religion fan out across the Roman Empire and beyond.

From the beginning, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth comprised a movement that was extreme, countercultural—a revolution that embraced both men and women, even social outcasts and slaves. In those first centuries, while the religion was still defining itself as an institution, many devout women flouted cultural convention and chose Jesus himself—not bishops and bureaucrats—as their personal guide. These women had permission to live beyond their gender as the leaders and patrons of local congregations, as preachers and ecstatic prophets and tough ascetics. They defied Roman family laws and rejected their sexuality. They walked the streets, spreading the gospel. They taught themselves Hebrew, analyzed Scripture, corresponded with other Christian leaders. They were aristocrats who seized control of their money and funneled it into the movement, building monasteries and helping prisoners and the poor.

Christianity took shape with the support of these female leaders and mystics and activists. But what we have left of them now are only the remembrances of a handful of men.
II. Rebel Virgins

It started with the virgins.

In the first two centuries of Christianity, many of the cultures in which it took hold had stubborn gender roles—but these roles weren’t as hardline as you might think. Women had long been the managers of their households, and since followers of the new movement met in private, in intimate “house churches,” women often became the natural leaders of the congregation. Christian women and men alike could become full-fledged ministers.

In the apostle Paul’s letter to the early congregation he founded in Corinth, he suggested that women should not teach or even speak aloud in church—but in his letter to the Romans, he also name-checked 28 prominent leaders in the Roman Christian community, 10 of whom were women. (A woman, the minister Phoebe, was Paul’s entree into that community.) Eventually, in some areas, there were even female bishops. This was back when the church was still a social movement, not yet a political powerhouse, and women were drawn to the possibilities it cracked open for them—as preachers, prophets, and patrons.

That said, laws passed by Augustus just before the start of the Common Era still required all upper-class men to marry and all women to procreate, in a return to Roman family values that were largely political myth. Women could only become financially independent—or, simply, independent—if they’d been divorced or widowed or given birth to a minimum of three children. To escape this system, some upper-class women went so far as to register as prostitutes in order to have free rein with their own money.

Kellia (“the Cells”), referred to as “the innermost desert”, was a 4th-century Egyptian Christian monastic community spread out over many square kilometers in the Nitrian Desert.

Kellia, a fourth century Egyptian Christian monastic community in the Nitrian Desert. (Photo: Geo24/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

It is in this environment that Christian women began to use the vow of chastity as both an act of devotion and an excellent legal loophole. Virginity became a movement, the ultimate hack. As a consecrated virgin, a woman suddenly became free of many of the empire’s gender laws, free to preach and to lead in their community, free to model themselves after the apostles. The majority of the virgins were women in the cities who formed their own network of house churches. They flaunted their independence from men, refusing to hide away or to veil themselves, rubbing their ethical superiority in married couples’ faces. They dressed to make a statement, sometimes adopting men’s clothing and hairstyles (some sheared their heads entirely), and preached in the streets in drag. Women of all social strata, in a move that evokes the late-1960s hippie exodus from the American suburbs, were abandoning their parents and husbands and homes to follow Christian prophets who claimed to offer a starker, truer interpretation of the gospel, and a chaste life as equals alongside equally devout men. Together, they would transcend the mundane world.

This life outside of social convention would not last. Toward the end of the third century, the emperor Diocletian ordered widespread attacks on chaste Christian women. All partner-less women who refused to marry were to be raped or prostituted. 1,000 widows were martyred in Antioch; 2,000 virgins were martyred in Ancyra.

At the same time, women’s place within the once exceptionally open movement began to contract. As Christianity expanded outward into the political realm, growing into an ambitious institution that aimed to harden its doctrine and practices, a decision was made: Women would no longer minister, prophesy, or baptize, and in the name of consistency, many of their stories would not be preserved. Church rank-and-file began to insist that women should not be ordained, should not baptize others, and should not teach the gospel—arguments that for the first 200 years had not been made, at least not on any meaningful scale. Few of these early female leaders would remain a part of the church’s history.

III. The Wealthiest Woman in Rome

As the church locked the roles of its followers into place—the Council of Nicaea, a first attempt at a consensus on church doctrine, was convened in 325—there were still those individuals who would not be contained. This takes us back to the well-appointed houses on the Aventine Hill, in the seat of the Roman Empire: Marcella’s loose collective of noblewomen were sending a shock through their community.

One prominent member of the group—we know her through her contemporaries Jerome and the historian Palladius—was Melania. The daughter of a former consul, married into a leading Roman family, she was among the wealthiest people in the empire. None of this, however, had protected her from that great equalizer, illness, and, when she was only 22, her husband and two of her three sons fell sick and died.

It was then that she did something very human: Melania turned to religion. She converted to Christianity and joined Marcella’s circle. It was a miserable life, a spirituality sprung from personal desperation.

But she stuck with it. And, after a few years, Melania raised the stakes. In a strange move for an aristocrat, she decided she would travel to Egypt, into the desert.

Seeking something deeper and harder than the officially sanctioned, assimilated Christian life, both men and women had begun streaming out into the desert—in Egypt, Syria, Persia, and present-day Turkey—to live as mystics. Contemporary fourth century accounts tell of tens of thousands of people who renounced the material world and went in search of a rapt, independent spirituality, supported only by their local ascetic community, or by a loose network of fellow hermits. (At this point, there were about 3,000 such communities throughout Egypt.) Some of them, out in that wasteland, became known as the “desert fathers” and “desert mothers” because they were giving birth to the Christian monastic life. Back in the cities and villages, word of these people spread, drawing others out to find them—Melania among them.

Saint Thecla monastery in Ma’loula

Saint Thecla monastery in Ma’loula. Thecla was a follower of Paul who was entombed in a cave, and the subject of many larger-than-life tales of her ascetic devotion. (Photo: Bernard Gagnon/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Quietly, before the government could force her to remarry (according to law), she appointed a guardian for her remaining son, loaded all the property she could onto a ship, and set sail, bringing many of the women and children of her household with her. Once arrived in Alexandria, she quickly liquidated her assets. She’d given up sex; she’d given up her last surviving son; and she now slowly began a decades-long process of giving away all her money.

Melania studied with the desert ascetics and followed them on their visits to the monastic communities throughout the region. Each person had their own cell in which they prayed and fasted and punished their bodies. They rarely spoke. During group prayer or silent meals, they wore hoods to make it easier for them to avoid looking at one another. Sometimes a few of the men or women would disappear to walk the day or two into the nearest town and preach in the streets, railing against materialism or inciting some heated theological debate.

But after about six months, with a Christian changing-of-the-guard in Egypt, the governor of Alexandria banished the monks and all Nicene Christians to Palestine. Melania decided to follow them into exile. Disguising herself as a slave, she snuck into their compound each night to visit these devout men and bring them whatever they might need, paid for with her own funds. The consul of Palestine learned of what Melania was doing and, unaware of her noble roots, had her arrested and imprisoned. At that moment (according to Palladius), she chose to pull rank, making absolutely clear that she was in her lowly situation by choice. “I am So-and-So’s daughter and So-and-So’s wife—but I am Christ’s slave. And do not despise the cheapness of my clothing. For I am able to exalt myself if I like, and you cannot terrify me in this way…” Whenever necessary, Melania did not hesitate to use her financial and social standing to support her religion. The consul let her do what she wanted.

When the men were finally freed, five long years later, Melania was ready for new work. She decided to head to Jerusalem, where she poured her money into building two monastic communities on the Mount of Olives: one for men (headed by her chaste collaborator, Rufinus), and one for women. She lived there—overseeing the convent, caring for pilgrims and refugees, and working with the poor—for 27 years. Her reputation was so impressive that Jerome called her a living saint.

When Melania received word that her granddaughter had decided to join the ascetic life, she returned to Rome to help her, and to attempt (against the odds) to convert other members of her extraordinarily wealthy family. On that trip home, in the intense heat, a deacon traveling with Melania washed himself with water and then laid down on the ground for a brief rest. Melania, then 60, supposedly called out to him, “How can a warm-blooded young man like you dare to pamper your flesh that way?”

Once done with Rome, Melania sold whatever land she had left, returned to Jerusalem to give away the last of her money, and died a legend at the age of 70.

IV. Enter the Cave

Little record remains of the desert ascetics Melania studied with, and, though there may have been twice as many women in the desert as men, we know even less about the desert mothers. A small collection of their sayings was passed down orally, but almost nothing of their lives. Who were these hermits and mystics? The story of Susan—though she lived later than the others here—is a rare surviving portrait of the severe path such women took.

Sometime in the 5th century, an eight-year-old girl in Persian Arzanene asked her parents to take her to visit the holy sites in Jerusalem. She’d likely heard talk of them, as there were thousands of pilgrims who were streaming through the region each year on their way to just that place. The upper-class family could afford the trip, but her parents dismissed her, laughed it off. Their daughter hadn’t even studied Scripture, so what could it all possibly mean to her?

So she ran away from home, hooked up with a caravan of Christian pilgrims, and hitched a ride to Jerusalem. There, they stopped at each of the sites to pray—and soon the girl, riding this spiritual high, headed off on her own. She would find a desert convent and start a new life. She traveled to a place she’d heard of, a community of many women somewhere near Gaza.

The ascetic life was harsh for the girl, who renamed herself “Susan.” The sisters were not inclined to coddle her—she was often slapped and reprimanded—but she slowly earned their respect. And after about a decade of living this way, Susan had become a leader of the group. When the women were forced to convert to Chalcedonian Christianity (a newer branch of the church) under threat of torture, the remaining sisters turned to her. She decided they would do what thousands of Christians of different traditions had already done: they would go deeper into the desert, and build a new community there.

More details Monastery of Saint Pishoy, Scetes, Egypt

Monastery of Saint Pishoy, Scetes, Egypt, founded in the fourth century AD in the Nitrian desert and named for one of the desert fathers. (Photo: Berthold Werner /WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Here, Susan’s story, related by the bishop John of Ephesus—a leader of an Eastern branch of the church, in what’s now Turkey—takes an even more dramatic turn. In a sequence of events typical of descriptions of the lives of saints (and even Moses and Jesus), Susan headed out into the wilderness and was confronted by Evil.

One day, having wandered far out into the dunes, praying as she walked, she discovered a cave. It was more of a large stone hole in the earth, this cave, and, as if by instinct, Susan climbed down and sat on the hard ground. Over the coming days and nights, demons supposedly appeared to her, one after the other—because just as the self-punishing and the devout are drawn to the desert, so (they say) are wicked spirits in their rawest form.

Back at the convent, the other sisters were miserable, confused—until residents of the nearest village led them to the cave. Peering down into the opening, they discovered Susan, on her belly on the dirt and gravel, groaning and praying out loud. The sisters pleaded with her to return with them. By force, they tried to remove her, tugged at her limbs, tried to lift her up and out—but she resisted. God intended for her to stay at this place, in prayer and penance.

For the next three years, the sisters would visit Susan once a week to bring her water and a few pieces of dry bread. As time went on, word spread of the woman alone in the cave, fasting and praying and battling demons. Her choice to isolate herself drew people to her—many visitors came to see her, from Alexandria and from Libyan villages. Eventually, an older holy man arrived, bringing with him ten disciples. Together with the sisters, they designed a desert monastery, with separate enclosures for the men and the women; and they convinced Susan to emerge from her desert cave, finally, to lead them. She spent her last years there, willing to talk to any who visited about the monastic life—but always from behind the wall. By the time of her death, she had not looked at the face of a man in 25 years.

People throughout Egypt passed around Susan’s teachings, the stories of her asceticism, her warnings about the apocalypse, her demand that every person ask forgiveness for the sinful nature with which they were born. Talk of her powers grew, from her ability to cure illness to her skills at battling far-away demons using only her mind. As John of Ephesus writes, “This is a woman, but she is stone, and instead of flesh she is iron!”
V. She Knew Herself No More as a Mother

Just as Susan left her parents and Melania abandoned her last son, Paula, the most famous of these early Christian women, completely defied conventional mores of femininity: she chose spiritual practice over family. It was a choice viewed then (and now) as even more repulsive when made by a woman.

Like Melania, Paula was a member of Marcella’s circle in Rome. Once she’d given birth to a male heir (after four daughters), she took a vow of chastity and began spending time in Marcella’s house. When her husband died shortly thereafter, she gave herself completely to religion. As a wealthy widow of 35, Paula met Jerome, and he helped her to oversee her own group of ascetic women—a group that included her children.

Within two years, however, the close relationship between the two chaste Christians became the stuff of gossip. Around the same time, Paula’s eldest daughter died—possibly from excessive fasting—and an angry crowd threw stones at Paula in the street during the funeral procession. Jerome left Rome, and Paula followed him, taking her remaining virgin daughter Eustochium and leaving her other children behind (including her infant son). Jerome would later describe that decision: “Disregarding her house, her children, her servants, her property, and in a word everything connected with the world, she was eager…alone and unaccompanied…to go to the desert.” As her children stood on the shore watching the ship leave, Paula, standing on the deck, turned her back to them. In that instant, she transformed herself from Penelope into Odysseus, from the woman always waiting to the man always leaving.

“She knew herself no more as a mother,” Jerome wrote, “that she might approve herself a handmaid of Christ. Yet her heart was rent within her, and she wrestled with her grief, as though she were being forcibly separated from parts of herself.” This painful choice, Jerome insisted, made “all admire her victory the more.” It’s unclear who Jerome’s referring to when he says that “all” admired Paula’s abandonment of her family—for the rest of her life, friends tried to lure her back to Rome, and critics accused her of losing her mind. But Melania and Susan did the same; and this was also what Jesus famously did, by refusing to pay his mother any particular respect or attention. The breaking of family ties was a symptom of a higher calling—made more shocking when done by a mother. As Jerome wrote, Paula “overc[ame] her love for her children by her greater love for God.”

Together with Jerome, Paula and Eustochium spent more than a year traveling throughout Jerusalem (where they visited Melania’s monastery) and Egypt (where they stayed with the desert fathers). Finally, they settled in Bethlehem, where Paula used her own money and credit to establish two monasteries—one for men overseen by Jerome, and another for women. The convent was a mix of women from different social classes and countries who were united by the vows they’d taken, their complete segregation from men, even eunuchs, and their renunciation of any personal possessions and all forms of vanity. Paula, fanatical in her practice, liked to say, “A clean body and a clean dress mean an unclean soul.”

But her lasting impact is as an intellectual. She managed Jerome’s scholarly work, and she suggested that he translate the Bible (then in Hebrew and Greek) into Latin. She helped him pull it off, providing all the reference materials. Having taught herself Hebrew, she edited the manuscript for him, and she and her daughter made copies by hand. This version of the Bible, known as the Vulgate, became the standard version for the Catholic Church for about the next 1,500 years.

When Paula died, at 56, bishops from several cities were present to personally carry her body into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, over the cave believed to be Jesus’s birthplace. People from all around Palestine flooded the streets, and even the desert hermits and the virgins hidden away in their cells came out to pay their respects. For an entire week, they chanted the psalms.

Jerome was buried beside her 16 years later.
VI. ‘If Each of My Limbs Were Gifted With a Voice’

Marcella, Melania, Susan, and Paula—they chose to live at the very edge of society. Between them, they disobeyed their families, gave away all they owned, educated themselves, produced scholarly works, founded entire communities, and were sainted. But their own words were not considered significant enough to pass down. What could they have to say about the Gospel that their male peers hadn’t said already? How could they understand their actions well enough to tell their own stories? What we know about the virginity movement, we know through a small number of early Christian writers and bishops. What we know about Susan, we know through John of Ephesus. And we know Melania through Palladius and Jerome.

Though the life and work of Paula also comes to us through the letters of Jerome, her longtime collaborator, some later accounts of Jerome’s life—perhaps not surprisingly—would omit his close relationship with Paula to allow for a more conventional hagiography. How do you tell the story of a great man if there is a great woman at the center of it? This is only one piece of what can be lost when history is told exclusively by men.

Christianity has had, since its inception, countless stories of female ascetics and saints and martyrs in its repertoire, used to repackage its doctrines through melodrama, through lives writ large. What makes these stories different? Perhaps they’re compelling because they evoke a time so close to the church’s radical beginnings and are therefore that much more believable as stories of potential, of a church that could have been. Or maybe it’s because the biographies of Melania, Susan, and Paula became accounts of resistance—of a rejection of how the church, as an official organ of the state, had begun to limit the lives of its women. These are tales of women who walked away from their families, shed their social status, gave away their money as they saw fit, put on the clothes of men, escaped their cities, and traveled out into the desert. They traveled so deep into the desert that they struck the heart of it, the place where people go to be tested. And they faced whatever was there and survived it and were transformed.

On the occasion of Paula’s death, Jerome wrote: “If all the members of my body were to be converted into tongues, and if each of my limbs were to be gifted with a human voice, I could still do no justice to the virtues of the holy and venerable Paula.” But the voice that was missing was hers all along.

This essay is dedicated to Jo Ann Kay McNamara (1931-2009), for her groundbreaking scholarship on the historical role of women in the Catholic Church.

Update, 1/21: In an earlier version, the wrong letter from Paul was cited. We regret the error.
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January 25, 2016
by Fehmida

Dead Sea Scrolls History: Looking Back on the Last 75 Years

Martin Abegg, Peter Flint and Andrew Perrin reflect on the Dead Sea Scrolls’ history

 With one of its long-term codirectors continuing on at the helm (Dr. Peter Flint) and the other (Dr. Martin Abegg) passing the baton to a new faculty member (Dr. Andrew Perrin), the leadership of the Trinity Western University Dead Sea Scrolls Institute—North America’s only research center dedicated to Qumran studies—provides a snapshot of both the perspectives of different generations of Dead Sea Scroll scholars and a view of the discipline’s past, present and future. In this exclusive Bible History Daily interview, these three colleagues reflect on some major moments in recent Qumran scholarship and pressing issues that lie ahead.

Megan Sauter (BAR): Along with Martin Abegg and Ben Zion Wacholder, BAR was part of the dramatic and controversial story of releasing the Dead Sea Scrolls texts to the world in the early ’90s. Looking back, how did that moment compromise or benefit the field?


Peter Flint, Andrew Perrin and Martin Abegg of Trinity Western University’s Dead Sea Scrolls Institute. Photo: Wendy Lees.

Martin Abegg: Of course, I am a bit biased, but I think the results of the publication of the preliminary editions were nearly all on the benefit side of the ledger. There is an undeniable visibility factor that resulted in immense press coverage and public interest that continues even to today. Equally important was the effect on official publication in the Discoveries in the Judaean Desert (DJD) series, which saw almost three-quarters of its total volumes published between 1991 and 2009. Secondary research has also increased substantially. It is almost impossible to keep up with the number of dissertations, monographs and journal articles that are churned out year after year in Dead Sea Scrolls studies and related disciplines. In one way or another, all of this activity represents the ripple effect of the unexpected but much needed publication.Peter Flint: Marty and I came to direct the Dead Sea Scrolls Institute at a time when the events leading up to the publication of the Qumran texts were still highly controversial. More than 20 years on, I can say with some confidence that almost everyone today would be pleased with the “Scroll busters” of the early ’90s. Geza Vermes once lamented that the slow and irregular pace of official publication of these invaluable manuscript discoveries was the “academic scandal par excellence of the 20th century.” He was correct. What we needed was a catalyst to make these materials available for researchers.

Andrew Perrin: Like many scholars in the early stages of their careers today, I started serious research on the Qumran finds just prior to when the finishing touches were put on the DJD series. So in many ways I am part of a first generation of scholars who are familiar with the tale of the controversies in the early ’90s yet only know the luxury of a fully published and openly accessible corpus. This situation is hugely advantageous for research: While the Qumran evidence itself is fragmentary, at least we have a full view of what is extant. This greatly reduces the unknown variables of any research project. Without the pre-emptive strike by Abegg, Wacholder and BAR, it is entirely possible that parts of the Qumran discoveries would remain unavailable to scholars even today.

Interested in the history and meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls? In the free eBook Dead Sea Scrolls, learn what the Dead Sea Scrolls are and why are they important. Find out what they tell us about the Bible, Christianity and Judaism.

MS: The completion of DJD signalled the full, critical publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Are there still new frontiers for publication that lie ahead?


Investigating 1QIsaa in DJD 32 edition. Photo: Wendy Lees.

Flint: While some hoped DJD would “canonize” the texts of the scrolls for the academic guild, there are in fact a number of other editions on offer or in preparation, such as the “Princeton” editions jointly published by Mohr Siebeck and Westminster John Knox or the new Brill Dead Sea Scrolls Editions. What the editors of such series have had to reflect on is what is new, innovative or proprietary about their projects. More editions are always better, so long as they make a valid contribution to our understanding of the texts on their pages and invite the reader to think about the primary sources in a different way.Perrin: New methods used to study texts and craft editions should also impact future publication endeavors. Already we’re seeing new technologies enhance both the quality of critical texts or re-editions as well as the way we interact with the materials. While the magnifying glass and microfiche images were standard issue tools for studying these texts mere years ago, now digital imaging software is allowing us to see more of the texts than ever before, to undertake virtual reconstructions of damaged materials, and to toy with new arrangements of scroll fragments that may require us to reassess what we thought we knew about the shape and details of some texts. Added to this, since many of our bookshelves are now housed on a hard drive, tablet technology opens up an entirely new frontier of what digital editions can achieve through dynamic and updatable interfaces.

Abegg: It’s also not just about new tools or technology, but those old texts that are absent in the “official” publications. While DJD is formally complete, technically it is an incomplete representation of the Qumran library. Several central texts, like the War Scroll, Genesis Apocryphon and Pesher Habakkuk, were not part of that series. In addition, DJD itself is simply the beginning of the conversation. Virtually every document requires more study, and there is the need for commentary to allow scholars in related disciplines to access the scrolls and integrate the finds of our field into their own. Editors of new series should also give serious thought to settling on a consistent referencing system. This would avoid the confusion of working with some texts, like the Cave 1 Hodayot manuscript, which has differing arrangements and references in early and more recent editions.

MS: There has been a lot of press, excitement and controversy in recent years over “new” Dead Sea Scrolls discoveries or acquisitions. What is the significance of these finds, and how do they impact scholarship?


Qumran Cave 4 viewed from the Qumran settlement. Photo: Andrew Perrin.

Abegg: I would suggest that these new discoveries are more valuable for keeping the conversation alive with the public than they are as a source of significant new information. The text of all the fragments currently in preparation for publication will likely amount to less than a single column of the Community Rule. As controversy drives interest, the suspicion that a good number of the new fragments may be forgeries (using actual uninscribed scroll fragments) is something that is sure to pique the interest of scholars and the public alike.Flint: While the amount of text is not substantial, if we’ve learned anything from the Dead Sea Scrolls, it is that the details of texts matter. Sometimes a new or different word in the smallest of fragments can make a huge difference. For example, one interesting new fragment of Leviticus acquired by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary includes a remarkable arrangement of text that brings together material from Leviticus 18 and 20, both of which relate abominations of the nations in the land, in a way that is similar to the paleo-Leviticus scroll of Cave 11. Here we have yet another representative of those early Pentateuchal texts that have a penchant for rearranging and harmonizing the scriptural text.

Perrin: These ongoing discoveries build into the heritage of intrigue around the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, I think a fringe benefit of these finds is that they remind us that we don’t need to wait for the next press release showcasing a new postage-stamp sized fragment that has come to light to make new discoveries. In fact, there are literally thousands of fragments at our fingertips listed as “miscellaneous” or “unidentified” in almost any volume of DJD. These are ripe for (re)discovery. For example, I have been working on a tiny Aramaic fragment from Cave 3 that is buried in the back matter of an early volume of DJD. In view of the Cave 4 materials of Tobit published in 1995, it is relatively certain that we have yet another manuscript of this apocryphal work. That is a newsworthy discovery, and it comes at a bargain price compared to what collectors are paying for yet unknown fragments!

MS: What future archaeological discoveries—textual or otherwise—would dramatically change or enrich your field?


Stepped mikveh ritual bath at Qumran with stairs damaged by an earthquake in 31 B.C.E. Photo: Andrew Perrin.

Perrin: Many now agree that the Qumranites were an Essene or Essene-like group but were part of a broader movement in ancient Judaism. That is probably why we see some variation in descriptions of their thought and practice in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Classical sources. The discovery of another archaeological site in the Judean Desert associated with this movement (perhaps if we were lucky enough it would include a modest library of texts) would be a game changer. Then we could compare both texts and community contexts of two satellite settlements of the Essene movement in Second Temple period Judea.Flint: That sort of archaeological discovery would be beneficial in and of itself, but would also challenge us to rethink how we map out the movement of ideas and texts in the communities we already know about. For example, we have similar copies of the Damascus Document present at Qumran and in the Cairo Genizah. This text didn’t travel hundreds of miles on its own. Perhaps additional copies of other texts known in the Qumran library, like the Hodayot or Temple Scroll, in other geographical locations or community archives would give us a host of fresh questions about the relationship between groups and the mobility of their literature.

Abegg: Since we’re dreaming big, imagine how the discovery of another trove of early Jewish texts—rivalling Caves 1, 4 and 11—would add to our discussions. I am also reminded of Frank Moore Cross’s answer to a similar question: “What I would like is a late seventh-century B.C.E. manuscript of Jeremiah.” So the earlier the better!

MS: In view of the completion of the Dead Sea Scrolls publication project and essential resources like the Concordance, what is next for the Qumran guild? What questions, texts or approaches do you expect to see more of in the years ahead?

Perrin: If a primary task of the first few generations of scroll scholars was establishing what these manuscripts say, the job from this point forward is explaining what they mean in their ancient contexts. The scrolls are just part of the literary heritage of ancient Judaism, but they do provide us with a lens into the broader cultural matrix of this world. For example, the suite of Aramaic texts among the Qumran collection is just now coming to the fore of research. Since Aramaic writings like 1 Enoch, Genesis Apocryphon and Aramaic Levi Document originated beyond Qumran, these materials provide an ideal space to explore how a given composition functioned in different ancient Jewish settings, presumably with varying social, political and religious commitments. Manuscripts are more than words on parchment or papyrus; they are artifacts produced by humans in and for communities. In general, I hope we’ll see more serious reflection on the significance these texts had for the ancient communities that either produced or received them.

Flint: We will of course see a larger focus on some of those understudied texts. As we transition from a book to a digital culture, we’re also seeing students and scholars use new tools to illumine the details of individual works. We’re formulating higher-level questions because of the available data behind the texts. For example, rather than simply parse a word to understand its meaning in a given phrase or sentence, databases of the entire Qumran collection enable us to track linguistic trends across the library. Likewise, our study of textual variations in the Biblical scrolls can adopt a panoramic view. We can start with a single difference, say, between the Great Isaiah scroll and Masoretic text, and consider if it matches any other scribal approaches to copying and interpreting Scripture evident in the now-thousands of collated textual variants identified in the Qumran Biblical corpus. In short, more complete and advanced data at once makes our questions more sophisticated and more complicated.


View of the Dead Sea from atop Masada. Photo: Andrew Perrin.

Abegg: As we envisage the future of our field, the list of potential projects is endless. Tools and resources will be created and recreated. Commentaries, re-editions, linguistic studies, theological studies—these are just a few of the things I expect we’ll see much more of as the field of Dead Sea Scrolls studies matures alongside other well-established disciplines like Hebrew Bible, New Testament and Rabbinic studies. One implication of this is that studies and resources that straddle multiple corpora will need to be revised. As I have prepared the second volume of the Dead Sea Scrolls Concordance, I am struck by the fact that the Greek documents from the Refuge Caves and other sites in the Judean Desert are not found in the most recent edition of the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek Lexicon, which is a go-to reference for Biblical and Classical studies. The same could be said of some widely used Hebrew lexica, which need a more thorough and intentional integration of linguistic data from the Qumran texts.

MS: We’re approaching the 75th anniversary of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. At this point, can young scholars still make a career out of Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship, or should students wishing to study the scrolls be encouraged in other directions?


Andrew Perrin, Peter Flint and Martin Abegg of Trinity Western University’s Dead Sea Scrolls Institute. Photo: Wendy Lees.

Abegg: Yes, scrolls scholarship remains an ideal launching point for an academic career. The broader field of Biblical studies thrives on the collective basis of vibrant focused disciplines—just look at a program book of the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting. Yet it is hard to imagine that any of us—even the likes of Emanuel Tov or Eugene Ulrich— would be able to find a job teaching only the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls, however, are ideally suited to serve any university’s Biblical, Jewish, theological and religious studies programs. Qumran scholarship requires Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, the study of the foundational texts of Judaism and Christianity, knowledge of the early church and rabbinic Judaism, as well as familiarity with Israelite religion. Other such “niche studies” in the past (e.g., Ugaritic) cannot make the same claim. In fact—I might be so bold to say—it’s hard to imagine another research focus that would equip the early career Biblical studies scholar with such a broad preparation.

Perrin: In view of my own experience in this field, the answer is absolutely yes. The strongest position from which to embark on a career in Biblical studies is with a profile of truly original research, not a thesis or dissertation that makes a minor tweak to a centuries-old academic debate over a single Biblical passage. While the Qumran materials come from a world two millennia ago, they have been fully available for scholarly research for around 25 years and the complete corpus of critical editions for less than a decade. Few fields, if any, in ancient studies boast this much potential for fresh research at a very early stage in one’s educational journey. There is so much uncharted territory: Almost every text needs deeper study, and endless topics await exploration. Additionally, as that nearly cliché buzzword “interdisciplinary” crops up in more job descriptions, I think upcoming scholars would be well-served to think about how their topics and interests dovetail with other fields of study. Fortunately, for those working on the Dead Sea Scrolls, there are natural points of contact with countless cognate disciplines and corpora that fall under the umbrellas of research on Christianity and Judaism in antiquity.Flint: Of course I agree with my colleagues on this point. The value of the scrolls, however, extends beyond academia. My work in this field rests on the unshakable conviction that the Dead Sea Scrolls are foundational to understanding the origins of Judaism and Christianity and are, therefore, part of the underlying fabric of contemporary Western Culture. The Qumran finds provide exhilarating views of the past—an essential quality for academic posts in any sub-discipline of Biblical studies—as well as plug us into larger questions of relevance to theological and religious studies. Questions about wealth, poverty, ethics, identity formation, community dynamics and gender, to name a few, are only recently being asked of the Dead Sea Scrolls. We started by talking over the significance of a fully published Qumran library. To be honest, I think we have yet to realize the full significance of these finds. It will be up to our current colleagues and the next generation of scholars to continue to read, research and write about what the eminent scholar William Foxwell Albright famously called “the greatest archaeological find of the 20th century.”



December 20, 2015
by Fehmida

A look inside an ancient Saudi heritage site

Turaif was the political stronghold of the First Saudi State, an 18th-century dynasty which briefly controlled most of the territory of present-day Saudi Arabia. (Photo: Miles Lawrence)

December 5, 2015
by Fehmida

King Hezekiah in the Bible: Royal Seal of Hezekiah Comes to Light


For the first time, the royal seal of King Hezekiah in the Bible has been found in an archaeological excavation. The stamped clay seal, also known as a bulla, was discovered in the Ophel excavations led by Dr. Eilat Mazar at the foot of the southern wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
The bulla, which measures just over a centimeter in diameter, bears a seal impression depicting a two-winged sun disk flanked by ankh symbols and containing a Hebrew inscription that reads “Belonging to Hezekiah, (son of) Ahaz, king of Judah.” The bulla was discovered along with 33 other stamped bullae during wet-sifting of dirt from a refuse dump located next to a 10th-century B.C.E. royal building in the Ophel.

In the ancient Near East, clay bullae were used to secure the strings tied around rolled-up documents. The bullae were made by pressing a seal onto a wet lump of clay. The stamped bulla served as both a signature and as a means of ensuring the authenticity of the documents.


Hezekiah, son and successor of Ahaz and the 13th king of Judah (reigning c. 715–686 B.C.E.), was known for his religious reforms and attempts to gain independence from the Assyrians.


In Aspects of Monotheism: How God Is One (Biblical Archaeology Society, 1997), Biblical scholar P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., summarizes Hezekiah’s religious reforms:

According to 2 Chronicles 29–32, Hezekiah began his reform in the first year of his reign; motivated by the belief that the ancient religion was not being practiced scrupulously, he ordered that the Temple of Yahweh be repaired and cleansed of niddâ (impurity). After celebrating a truly national Passover for the first time since the reign of Solomon (2 Chronicles 30:26), Hezekiah’s officials went into the countryside and dismantled the local shrines or “high places” (bamot) along with their altars, “standing stones” (masseboth) and “sacred poles” (’aásûeµrîm). The account of Hezekiah’s reform activities in 2 Kings 18:1–8 is much briefer. Although he is credited with removing the high places, the major reform is credited to Josiah (2 Kings 22:3–23:25).

Hezekiah’s attempts to save Jerusalem from Assyrian king Sennacherib’s invasion in 701 B.C.E. are chronicled in both the Bible and in Assyrian accounts. According to the Bible, Hezekiah, anticipating the attack, fortified and expanded the city’s walls and built a tunnel, known today as Hezekiah’s Tunnel, to ensure that the besieged city could still receive water (2 Chronicles 32:2–4; 2 Kings 20:20).


On the six-sided clay prism called the Sennacherib Prism as well as other annals of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib details in Akkadian his successful campaigns throughout Judah, bragging that he had Hezekiah trapped in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage.” According to the Bible, however, Sennacherib ultimately failed to capture Jerusalem before his death (2 Kings 19:35–37).The bulla discovered in the Ophel excavations represents the first time the royal seal of Hezekiah has been found on an archaeological project.

“Although seal impressions bearing King Hezekiah’s name have already been known from the antiquities market since the middle of the 1990s—some with a winged scarab (dung beetle) symbol and others with a winged sun—this is the first time that a seal impression of an Israelite or Judean king has ever come to light in a scientific archaeological excavation,” Eilat Mazar said in the Hebrew University press release.

Bullae bearing the seal impressions of Hezekiah have been published in Biblical Archaeology Review. In the March/April 1999 issue, epigrapher Frank Moore Cross wrote about a bulla depicting a two-winged scarab. The bulla belonged to the private collection of antiquities collector Shlomo Moussaieff.1 In the July/August 2002 issue, epigrapher Robert Deutsch discussed a bulla stamped with the image of a two-winged sun disk flanked by ankh symbols—similar to the one uncovered in the Ophel excavations. Both bullae published by Cross and Deutsch bear a Hebrew inscription reading “Belonging to Hezekiah, (son of) Ahaz, king of Judah.”

The  iconography on the Ophel bulla and other seal impressions of Hezekiah:

The symbols on the seal impression from the Ophel suggest that they were made late in his life, when both the royal administrative authority and the king’s personal symbols changed from the winged scarab (dung beetle)—the symbol of power and rule that had been familiar throughout the ancient Near East, to that of the winged sun—a motif that proclaimed God’s protection, which gave the regime its legitimacy and power, also widespread throughout the ancient Near East and used by the Assyrian kings.


The excavation unearthed another extraordinary find: the so-called Ophel treasure, a cache of gold coins, gold and silver jewelry and a gold medallion featuring a menorah, shofar (ram’s horn) and a Torah scroll.

December 5, 2015
by Fehmida

Cultural memory

My tutor mentioned the interesting concept of ‘cultural memory’ and how it shapes our interpretation of the past.

Cultural memories are those transformative historical experiences that define a culture, even as time passes and it adapts to new influences. For oppressed peoples, cultural memory engenders the spirit of resistance; not surprisingly, some of its most powerful incarnations are rooted in religion.

Article below by Emeritus Professor Philip Davies, University Of Sheffield, England.


Cultural or collective memory (also known as “social memory”) has become a major issue of the last fifty years in several fields. The concept originated within sociology but has more recently taken in psychology and history (see especially Zerubavel E, 2003; Zerubavel Y., 2005) to become an interdisciplinary area of investigation (see Middleton and Edwards, 1990). Its particular value is in its recognition not only that “the past” is always something created rather than simply recorded but also that recollection serves to create and sustain identity. Thus, while the effect of memory is to reproduce the past, its function is in truth orientated towards the present, to which the past is constantly adjusting itself (or to the future, when identity determines action).

Cultural memory has recently been applied to biblical studies and especially to the biblical narratives about the past. I have made use of it in a couple of recent books (Davies 2007, 2008), but the dangers in using the term are almost as great as its advantages. Indeed, nearly all the issues can be related to the term itself.


Let me begin with “memory.” This word for most people implies the recollection of something that happened. Much the same is true of the once popular (and still widely-used) term “tradition” to refer to biblical narratives about the past. But just as folklore studies have shown how easily “tradition” can be invented, so scientific studies of both individual and collective memory have shown that this too is subject to invention and revision (Middleton and Edwards supply a very good description). The process of conjuring up an image of the past (as we should always think of it) is affected by both personal and social identities. This fact should be fairly obvious: without memory one can have no sense of identity, only of being or self, but just as images of the past provide identity, so one’s changing identity modifies one’s images of the past. Anyone who has revisited places known from the past or discussed past events with others who also witnessed them can verify how deceitful memory can be.

So “memory” is the right term, precisely because as a cultural process it replicates individual memory. It is, of course, also a part of individual memory: only individuals can actually conjure up images of the past. Collective memories have to be embedded in individuals. But the sense in which societies can be legitimately said to “remember” has been well illustrated by Connerton, who draws our attention, among other things, to learned habits of behavior, including rituals, as ways in which such “memories” are literally “incorporated.”

The role of cultural memory in shaping ethnic identity has already been well explored (Assmann 1992 has been particularly influential), and particularly in the case of ancient Jewish identity (Mendels 2004, Mendels [ed.] 2007; Yerushalmi, 1996). The creation of the State of Israel is itself the culmination of centuries of Jewish memory: the memory of expulsion (which is itself a creation since the Jewish diaspora was created largely by voluntary migration) and the “memory” of an ancient occupation that no individual ever experienced. Indeed, the major (perhaps the only) unifying element in “Judaism” is the appropriation of a Jewish memory, an act that transcends religious and non-religious Jews.

This brings me to the term “cultural.” Is it preferable to “collective” or “social” memory? Each of the terms is appropriate, but emphasizes a different aspect. I personally prefer “cultural” because it points to the role of memory in shaping identity, rather than an opposition to “individual.” But while all these terms are appropriate, none of them should be too narrowly construed. Shared memory can belong to groups of all sizes—married couples, families, gangs, classes, professions, neighborhoods, clubs, nations, religious communities. And of course between “individual” and “collective” memory there is no strict opposition. Indeed, Halbwachs maintained that individual memory was actually impossible; unaided by others we could not construct a sequential narrative at all, only isolated incidents with an imperfect chronological context. Whether or not he is correct (and he use dreams as his main argument against individual memory), every individual’s identity comprises not only personal images but also those shared between members of a group. As individuals, our identity is largely made up by the groups we belong to. Never mind the genes!

Cultural Memory and “Biblical History”

What is the value of “cultural memory” to the biblical historian? First, it introduces a concept that has both an empirical and theoretical body of knowledge. The same might be said, it is true, of “tradition,” but “tradition” as such confined to folklore studies, and the scope for empirical investigation of folklore is much more restricted than it is to individual and group memory. We should not simply use cultural memory as a more modish name for “tradition” (as does Smith, 2004).

A second value of cultural memory is to focus the attention of the biblical historian (should we retain that word?) on the memory itself rather than the event it conjures. Since we now know that very many biblical images of the past (patriarchs, exodus, wandering, conquest, perhaps David and Solomon, too) are not authentic ones, it is our responsibility to discover how better to describe them, which means understanding what their real purpose is. The old dichotomies of “history” vs. “fiction” or “truth” vs “falsehood” are obsolete and never were appropriate to an authorship who lacked reliable access to knowledge of the past). Certainly, historians of ancient Palestine still want and need to know what “really happened” because without that knowledge we cannot evaluate the memories themselves. But since the biblical memories contain sometimes events that occurred and sometimes things that did not happen (and things that did happen, but differently), “historicity” cannot any longer be any issue of principle: the Bible cannot be “true” or “false” any more than human memory can be: we can only consider each memory on its merits—and in the case of biblical memories, these are usually unverifiable.

Third, cultural memory forces us to focus on the identity (and self-identity) of the group to which the memory belongs. The realization that many different groups in antiquity claimed the identity “Jew” or the name “Israel” points to the multiplicity of competing memories, and many of these are represented in the biblical accounts of the past. This in part explains their inconsistencies, for while inconsistency is bad history, it may be very good cultural memory in amalgamating different group “recollection” (A good example is the independent but parallel memories of Ezra and Nehemiah combined into a single episode.) One such amalgamation is the nation “Israel” itself, which has a political counterpart only in a kingdom known by that name (among others) but a religious counterpart in the adherents of the cult of Yahweh (variously defined). The historian’s task is not to try and chase the chimera of a fictitious 12-tribe “nation” (“ancient Israel”) but to identify the groups to which the identity of “Israel” attached (including Samaria). We also need to study the mechanisms by which influential groups can impose their own memories on others, or share them: instances of the former abound in medieval and modern Europe. How did the biblical texts, the products of a small elite (or various elites), come to be accepted as the memories of an entire ethnos? Through the canonizing of the scriptures? Through public ritual (synagogues)? Through an education system? Through the spread of literacy? And how long did this process take?

Finally, and most importantly, the phenomenon of cultural memory can be applied not only to ancient biblical writers but modern biblical scholars. Most of us have the biblical narrative as part of our own cultural memory, if for no other reason than we heard the stories as children and celebrate them at every Christmas and Easter. Most of us have no problem with celebrating events that we know or suspect did not really happen—Catholic or Hispanic or Asian Americans can celebrate the initial “Thanksgiving” of New England Puritans. But some cannot accept that their memories do not correspond to what really happened. Partly the issue has to do with the kind of religious sensibilities that the individual scholar has, or his/her denominational affiliation. By and large, the issue does have to do with religion (usually a belief that biblical memories have to be infallible) rather than with a methodology of doing history. But religious belief is not the sole issue. For it is still the common popular view that the Bible relates real events, and this belief is the result of complacency, laziness, and poor education about the Bible among those for whom biblical scholarship is alien (this includes a few of my university colleagues). Nevertheless, among biblical scholars, we should recognize that the major differences in evaluation of biblical narratives between “conservatives” and “radical” (or whatever the terms) can nearly always be identified with the role and importance of the biblical story as part of contemporary Jewish or Christian cultural memory.

Hence, “Memories of Ancient Israel,” as I titled my last book, has a double meaning: it is both about the memories that ancient groups possessed (and often created) about “Israel” but also about our own cultural memories of that “Israel.” We should ask ourselves whether the “facts” themselves—which are few and fragile and contested enough—have very much significance compared with the memories on which people’s identities and their actions depend. What happened in the past can certainly contribute to who we are now, but what we think happened is far more significant; rather than discount it as bad history, the historian should pay careful attention to it, because it contains the key to most human action.


Assmann, Jan. 1992, 1999. Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, Munich: Beck.

—. 1997. Moses the Egyptian. The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

—. 2006. Religion and Cultural Memory: Ten Studies, translated by Rodney Livingstone, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Connerton, Paul. 1989. How Societies Remember, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Davies, Philip R. 2007. The Origins of Biblical Israel, London: T&T Clark.

—. 2008. Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Halbwachs, Maurice. 1992. On Collective Memory, Edited and translated by Lewis A. Coser, Chicago: University of Chicago Press (original Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire, Paris, F. Alcan, 1925).

Mendels, Doron. 1992. The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism. Jewish and Christian Ethnicity in Ancient Palestine, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

—. 2004. Memory in Jewish, Pagan, and Christian Societies of the Graeco-Roman World, London: T&T Clark.

Middleton, David and Derek Edwards. 1990. Collective Remembering, London: Sage.

Smith, Mark S. 2004. The Memoirs of God: History, Memory and the Experience of the Divine, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress.

Yerushalmi, Yosef Hayim. 1982. Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Zerubavel, Eviatar. 2003. Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Zerubavel, Yael. 2005. Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.





December 5, 2015
by Fehmida

Was Qumran a religious or a secular community?

The site of Qumran was originally settled in the mid-8th century BCE and there are traces of walls and a large cistern from that date. In around 130 BCE the site was reoccupied, the water conservation system expanded and a number of buildings constructed. The settlement expanded in the early first century BCE and the population there continued until the revolt against the Romans in 66 CE, when it was attacked and then garrisoned by the Roman army.

In understanding Qumran, scholars follow two lines of evidence: the architecture and material remains from the sites and also the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls were found hidden on a cave in the cliffs overlooking the Dead Sea by a young Bedouin shepherd who had entered a cave looking for a stray goat. Stored in jars, their discovery led to a search that ultimately uncovered thousands of fragments of scrolls from eleven caves. They are dated between 150 BCE and 170 CE, and consist of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts on parchment and papyrus.

 Qumran Caves, West Bank Licensed by Grauesel under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence

Qumran Caves, West Bank Licensed by Grauesel under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence



Initially I thought that the Qumran settlement was a secular community headed by priests because:

a) Some scrolls mention having a future large community headed by a king.

b) The scrolls address a mainly agricultural community, and laws pertaining to everyday life.

c) A potters workshop at the settlement with jars – that were distinctive to Qumran – having been manufactured there. Trade?

d) A few scrolls are written in Greek not Aramaic or Hebrew – not expected from a community of ascetics in the desert?


On the other hand, I’m thinking this may well be a religious community because:


a) Baths with broad steps seem to be ritual baths not cisterns. Steps have a partition in the middle, possibly to go down one side and up the other side.

b) Cemetery consists mostly of men, not families – graves that were found of women and children were said to be those of Bedouins. Josephus, Philo and Pliny also indicate that the so called ‘Essene’ sect consists of mostly adult  men.

c) No private houses – only communal hall/rooms , communal dining room. Some of their text confirms that a central aspect of their lifestyle was to have communal meals.

d) The scriptorium with the inkwell?

e) The sectarian scrolls that tell us about the sect – founded by priests emerging from conflict.

f) Exclusive admission process to join the community.

November 13, 2015
by Fehmida

Gates Of Jerusalem

Golden Gate

The Golden Gate, as it is called in Christian literature, is the oldest of the current gates in Jerusalem’s Old City Walls. According to Jewish tradition, the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) used to appear through this gate, and will appear again when the Messiah comes (Ezekiel 44:1-3) and a new gate replaces the present one; that is why Jews used to pray for mercy at the former gate at this location.Hence the name Sha’ar Harachamim the Gate of Mercy.

In Christian apocryphal texts, the gate was the scene of a meeting between the parents of Mary, so that Joachim and Anne Meeting at the Golden Gate became a standard subject in cycles depicting the Life of the Virgin. It is also said that Jesus passed through this gate on Palm Sunday. In Arabic, it is known as the Gate of Eternal Life. In ancient times, the gate was known as the Beautiful Gate.

Remains of a much older gate dating to the times of the Second Jewish Temple were found. The present one was probably built in the 520s AD, as part of Justinian I’s building program in Jerusalem, on top of the ruins of the earlier gate in the wall. An alternate theory holds that it was built in the later part of the 7th century by Byzantine artisans employed by the Umayyad khalifs.

The gate is located in the middle of the eastern side of the Temple Mount. The portal in this position was believed to have been used for ritual purposes in biblical times.

The Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent sealed off the Golden Gate in 1541. While this may have been purely for defensive reasons, in Jewish tradition, this is the gate through which the Messiah will enter Jerusalem and it is suggested that Suleiman the Magnificent sealed off the Golden Gate to prevent the Messiah’s entrance.

The Muslims also built a cemetery in front of the gate, in the belief that the precursor to the Messiah, Elijah, would not be able to pass through the Golden Gate and thus the Messiah would not come. This belief was based upon two premises. First, according to Islamic teaching Elijah is a descendant of Aaron, making him a priest or kohen. Secondly, that Jewish priests are not permitted to enter a cemetery. This second premise is not wholly correct because a kohen is permitted to enter a cemetery in which primarily non-Jews are buried such as the one outside the Golden Gate.

The Golden Gate is one of the few sealed gates in Jerusalem’s Old City Walls, along with the Huldah Gates, and a small Biblical and Crusader-era postern located several stories above ground on the southern side of the eastern wall. Gate of Mercy, the Gate of Gold, the Gate of Eternal Life, Sha’ar Harahamim – appears in the legends of all three religions. An early Jewish tradition holds that it is through that gate that the Messiah will enter Jerusalem. According to Christian tradition, Jesus made made his last entry to Jerusalem through the Mercy Gate. The Muslims refer to it as the Gate of Mercy and believe it to be the gate referred to in the Koran, through which the just will pass on the Day of Judgment.

Herod’s Gate

The first name was given to the gate by pilgrims, who erroneously believed that it led to Herod’s palace. It is known in Arabic as the Flower Gate. It is a gate in the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Its elevation is 755 meters above sea level. It adjoins the Muslim Quarter, and is a short distance to the east of the Damascus Gate. In proximity to the gate is an Arab neighborhood called Bab a-Zahara, a variation of the Arabic name for the gate.

This modest gate is one of the newest gates of Jerusalem. At the time when Suleiman the Magnificent built the wall, a small wicket gate was situated in front of the current gate, which was rarely opened. By 1875, in order to provide a passageway to the neighborhoods which were beginning to develop north of the Old City, the Ottomans made a breach in the northern part of the structure and closed the original opening.

The gate is named after Herod the Great. That is because in the Crusaders’ period a church was built near the gate in the belief that at the time of the Crucifixion of Jesus, Herod Antipas’s house was situated at that spot. In its place today stands the church of Dir Al Ads.

In 1998 and during several subsequent excavation seasons (the latest in 2004), archaeologists of the Israel Antiquities Authority dug in the eastern area of Herod’s Gate. The digging focused on three separate areas adjacent to the wall, in which nine archeological layers were discovered – covering from the Iron age up through the Turkish period.

Among the most significant discoveries were structures from the period of the Second Temple, a complete segment of the Byzantine-Roman wall, and remnants of massive construction underneath the wall. These remnants were identified as portions of a fortification from the ancient Muslim period and from the Middle Ages. These discoveries point out the importance which the rulers of the city gave to the fortification of one of its most sensitive places – the northern wall of Jerusalem – as historical accounts indicate that circa 1099 the Crusader soldiers in the command of Godfrey of Bouillon entered the city through a breach located in proximity to the present Herod’s Gate.

Lions’ Gate

The Lions’ Gate, Stephen’s Gate, or Sheep Gate, is located in the Old City Walls of Jerusalem and is one of seven open Gates in Jerusalem’s Old City Walls.

Located in the east wall, the entrance marks the beginning of the traditional Christian observance of the last walk of Jesus from prison to crucifixion, the Via Dolorosa. Near the gate’s crest are four figures of panthers, often mistaken for lions, two on the left and two on the right. They were placed there by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent to celebrate the Ottoman defeat of the Mamluks in 1517.

Legend has it that Suleiman’s predecessor Selim I was captured by lions that were going to eat him because of his plans to level the city. He was spared only after promising to protect the city by building a wall around it. This led to the lion becoming the heraldic symbol of Jerusalem. However, Jerusalem already had been, from Biblical times, the capital of the Kingdom of Judah, whose emblem was a lion (Genesis 49:9).

In another version, Suleiman taxed Jerusalem’s residents with heavy taxes which they could not afford to pay. That night Suleiman had a dream of two lions coming to devour him. When he woke up, he asked his dream solvers what his dream meant. A wise respected man came forward and asked Suleiman what was on his mind before drifting to sleep. Suleiman responded that he was thinking about how to punish all the men who didn’t pay his taxes. The wise man responded that since Suleiman thought badly about the holy city, God was angry. To atone, Suleiman built the Lions’ Gate to protect Jerusalem from invaders.

Israeli paratroops from the 55th Paratroop Brigade came through this gate during the Six-Day War of 1967 and unfurled the Israeli flag above the Temple Mount.

The Lions’ Gate is not to be confused with the Zion Gate in the Old City Wall, located in the south, leading to the Jewish and Armenian Quarters.

The magnificent walls of Jerusalem’s Old City were built by the Ottoman Empire under the direct supervision of Sultan Suleiman in 1542. The walls stretch for approximately 4.5 kilometers (2.8 mi) and rise to a height of 5-15 meters (16-49 feet), with a thickness of 3 meters (10 feet). Altogether, the Old City walls contain 43 surveillance towers and 11 gates, seven of which are presently open.

Zion Gate

The Zion Gate, also known in Arabic as Bab Harat al-Yahud (“Jewish Quarter Gate”), or Bab an-Nabi Dawud (“Prophet David Gate”), is one of eight gates in the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem.

Located in the south of the Old City, facing Mount Zion and Hebron, the Zion Gate leads into the Armenian and Jewish Quarters. Zion Gate is also known as David’s Gate because the tomb of King David is believed to be on Mt. Zion. The gate was built for Suleiman the Magnificent in 1540. In the 19th century, an area close to the gate was the gathering place of lepers.

In the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the Palmach gained control of the Jewish Quarter via the Zion Gate. The stones surrounding the gate were pockmarked by weapons fire and bullet holes that are still visible today. The last British troops leaving Jerusalem on May 13, 1948, presented Mordechai Weingarten with the key to the gate. The gate was under the rule of Jordan until the Six-Day War.

Both pedestrians and vehicles use the gate, although maneuvering is difficult due to the L-shaped passageway. Until recently, there was two-way vehicular traffic passing through the gate. Today cars can exit but not enter the Old City via this gate.

Damascus Gate

Damascus Gate is the main entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem. It is located in the wall on the city’s northwest side where the highway leads out to Nablus, and from there, in times past, to the capital of Syria, Damascus; as such, its modern English name is Damascus Gate, and its modern Hebrew name, Sha’ar Shkhem meaning Shechem Gate, or Nablus Gate. Of its Arabic names, Bab al-Nasr means “gate of victory,” and Bab al-Amud means “gate of the column.” The latter name, in use continuously since at least as early as the 10th century, preserves the memory of a design detail dating to the 2nd century AD Roman era gate.

In its current form, the gate was built in 1537 under the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Underneath, remains of a gate dating to the time of the Roman rule of Hadrian in the 2nd century AD have been discovered and excavated.

In front of this gate stood a Roman victory column topped with the Emperor Hadrian’s image, as depicted on the 6th century Madaba Map. This historical detail is preserved in gate’s Arabic name, Bab el-Amud, meaning “gate of the column”.

On the lintel to the 2nd century gate, under which one can pass today, is inscribed the city’s name under Roman rule, Aelia Capitolina. Hadrian had significantly expanded the gate which served as the main entrance to the city from at least as early as the 1st century BC during the rule of Agrippa.

One of eight gates remade in the 10th century, Damascus Gate is the only one to have preserved the same name (i.e. Bab al-Amud) in modern times. The Crusaders called it St. Stephen’s Gate (in Latin, Porta Sancti Stephani), highlighting its proximity to St. Stephen’s Church and the site of his martyrdom. Several phases of construction work on the gate took place the early Ayyubid period (1183-1192) and both early 12th century and later 13th century Crusader rule over Jerusalem. A 1523 account of a visit to Jerusalem by a Jewish traveller from Leghorn uses the name Bab el ‘Amud and notes its proximity to the Cave of Zedekiah.

Damascus Gate is flanked by two towers, each equipped with machicolations. It is located at the edge of the Arab bazaar and marketplace. In contrast to the Jaffa Gate, where stairs rise towards the gate, in the Damascus Gate, the stairs descend towards the gate. Until 1967, a crenellated turret loomed over the gate, but it was damaged in the fighting that took place in and around the Old City during the Six-Day War.

In August 2011, Israel restored the turret, including its arrowslit, with the help of pictures from the early twentieth century when the British Empire controlled Jerusalem. Eleven anchors fasten the restored turret to the wall, and four stone slabs combine to form the crenellated top.

Jaffa Gate

Jaffa Gate, also Arabic, Bab Mihrab Daud, “Gate of the Prayer Niche of David”; also David’s Gate) is a stone portal in the historic walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. It is one of eight gates in Jerusalem’s Old City walls.

Jaffa Gate was inaugurated in 1538 as part of the rebuilding of the Old City walls by Suleiman the Magnificent.

In 1917, British general Edmund Allenby entered the Old City through the Jaffa Gate, giving a speech at the nearby Tower of David. Allenby entered the city on foot in a show of respect for the city and a desire to avoid comparison with the Kaiser’s entry in 1898. The British demolished other buildings adjoining the city wall in 1944 in an attempt to preserve Jerusalem’s historic vistas.

During the 1948 ArabÐIsraeli War, Israeli forces fought hard to connect the Jewish Quarter of the Old City with Israeli-held western Jerusalem by controlling the Jaffa Gate. On the evening of May 18, 1948, the Haganah launched a frontal assault on the gate but were beaten back with heavy losses. With a Jordanian victory in 1948, Israeli forces were not able to gain control of the gate until the Six Day War in 1967.

In 2000 Pope John Paul II came through Jaffa Gate to the Old City during his visit in Israel in the Holy Year.

The street leading east from the Jaffa Gate was once called “Capital Street” but today is known as “David Street” and is one of the principal streets for souvenir shopping.

Just inside the gate, behind an iron grating on the left, lie two tombs. These are believed to be the graves of the two architects whom Suleiman commissioned to construct the Old City walls. According to legend, when Suleiman saw that the architects had left Mount Zion and the tomb of King David out of the enclosure, he ordered them killed. However, in deference to their impressive achievement, he had them buried inside the walls next to Jaffa Gate.

Jaffa Gate is the only one of the Old City gates positioned at a right angle to the wall. This could have been done as a defensive measure to slow down oncoming attackers, or to orient it in the direction of Jaffa Road, from which pilgrims arrived at the end of their journey from the port of Jaffa.

Both the Jaffa Gate and Jaffa Road are named after the port of Jaffa, from which the Prophet Jonah embarked on his sea journey and pilgrims debarked on their trip to the Holy City. The modern-day Highway 1, which starts from the western end of Jaffa Road, completes the same route to Tel Aviv-Jaffa.

The Arabic name for the gate, Bab el-Khalil (Gate of the Friend), refers to Abraham, the beloved of God who is buried in Hebron. Since Abraham lived in Hebron, another name for the Jaffa Gate is “Hebron Gate”. The Arabs also called this gate Bab Mihrab Daud (Gate of the Prayer Niche of David), since King David is considered a prophet by Islam. The Crusaders, who rebuilt the citadel to the south of Jaffa Gate, also built a gate behind the present location of Jaffa Gate, calling it “David’s Gate”.

Like the stones used for the rest of the Old City walls, the stones of Jaffa Gate are large, hewn, sand-colored blocks. The entryway stands about 20 feet (6 meters) high, and the wall rises another 20 feet above that.

The modern gateway is, in fact, a breach in the wall made in 1898 when German Emperor Wilhelm II insisted on entering the city mounted on his white horse. Local legend said that Jerusalem would be ruled by a king who entered the city’s gates on a white horse, so to satisfy the emperor’s vanity and avoid the fate foretold by legend, a breach was made in the wall rather than allow him to ride through a gate.

The Tower of David is an ancient citadel located near the Jaffa Gate entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem. Built to strengthen a strategically weak point in the Old City’s defenses, the citadel that stands today was constructed during the 2nd century BCE and subsequently destroyed and rebuilt by, in succession, the Christian, Muslim, Mamluk, and Ottoman conquerors of Jerusalem. It contains important archaeological finds dating back 2,700 years, and is a popular venue for benefit events, craft shows, concerts, and sound-and-light performances.

After the recapture of Jerusalem in 132 AD the emperor Hadrian had the city rebuilt as a Roman city called Aelia Capitolina and a tall pillar in the plaza inside the Damascus Gate was the starting point for measurements to other cities, as indicated in the mosaic Madaba Map. This pillar appears to have fallen or been demolished during the Byzantine period.

In the 20th Century the plaza outside the Jaffa Gate served the same purpose. During the British Mandate for Palestine a marker outside the doorway served as the zero point for distances to and from Jerusalem. There is no such marker today.

Dung Gate

The Dung Gate, also known as Sha’ar Ha’ashpot, Gate of Silwan, Mograbi Gate, is one of the gates in the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. The gate is situated near the southeast corner of the old city, southwest of the Temple Mount. The gate is the closest to the Western Wall and is a main passage for vehicles. It was originally much smaller, but was enlarged in 1952, after the Old City came under Jordanian control in 1948. After its capture by Israel in 1967, architect Shlomo Aronson was commissioned to renovate this gate. Directly behind the gate lies the entrance to the Western Wall compound.

The name Sha’ar Ha’ashpot appears in the Book of Nehemiah:3:13-14. It is probably named after the residue that was taken from the Jewish Temple into the Valley of Hinnom, where it was burned. This ancient “Dung Gate” may not have been in the same location as the modern gate. The name Mograbi gate (Bab al-Magharibeh) refers to the Moroccan Quarter or (Mughrabi quarter) now destructed, which was situated near the area.

New Gate

The New Gate is the newest gate in the walls that surround the Old City of Jerusalem. It was built in 1889 to provide direct access between the Christian Quarter and the new neighborhoods then going up outside the walls.The arched gate is decorated with crenelated stonework. The New Gate was built at the highest point of the present wall, at 790 meters above sea level.

During the 3rd and 4th centuries the northern wall was rebuilt and improved by the Byzantines leaving no trace or record of a gate in this sector of the fortification. While there is no information about a gate preexisting at this point in the wall before the city was occupied by the Crusaders, there is a suggestion that they maintained a small postern gate, named after St. Lazarus, just east of the Ottoman construction for the use of troops stationed at Tancred’s Tower (Goliath’s Tower).

Uncovered during drainage and sewage works in the area, it may have also been used by the knights of the Leper’s Order also quartered there. Early records of the Crusades suggest the wall was breached after the Crusader occupation on the orders of Tancred The gate may well have been, with the tower subsequently named after him. The breach may have been later converted into a gate.

The Crusader gate may have been sealed up following Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem in 1187 because it did not conform to architectural style of fortifications used by the Turkish armies. The earlier Crusader gate had ” … a roundabout entrance, dim approaches, and a tower that protruded from the line of fortifications.” By contrast the earlier gates as well as the Ottoman gate are constructed within the city, and aligned with the facade of the of the wall. The older gates were probably sealed by the external wall built in 1516 by Suleiman the Magnificent. However, another gate was reported in the 16th century called the Gate of the Serbian Monastery, that was used by the Franciscans while they were building the Church of St. Salvatore.

It was built at the request of the French Consul to provide access to the Old City from the Notre Dame Hospice that was completed in 1886, and to provide Russian Christian pilgrims living at the Russian Compound (outside the Old City walls) direct access to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Christian Quarter. Contrary to popular belief, Kaiser Wilhelm II during his visit to Jerusalem entered not through the New Gate, but through the “Hole in the Wall”, made so that he wouldn’t have to dismount his carriage to enter the city.

From the beginning of the First World War the headquarters of Roshen Bey, the most senior Ottoman military officer in the Jerusalem area, was located at the Notre Dame Hospice opposite the New Gate.

During the 1920s and 1930s the New Gate became the nearest gate to the modern city Jerusalem with the Christian Brothers’ College located just inside its structure in the Old City. At this time the New Gate, as all gates to the Old City, included an iron gate which was operated by the police, and shut as required by the administrative regulations.

On the afternoon of Friday, August 23, 1929, an unprovoked attack was staged by the Arabs from the Old City between the New and Damascus gates that resulted in the killing of several Jews after the Arabs were inflamed by the sermons during the noon prayers at Haram esh Sherif.

From 1946 and until Independence the British Administration created a security zone between the New Gate and Jaffa Road, called euphemistically Bevingrad for Ernest Bevin, due to the terrorist activity from both sides. On November 15, 1945 the Stern Gang attempted to demolish part of the wall next to the New Gate, using a massive device that required ten men to transport and emplace; however it failed to function.

During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, David Shaltiel’s Etzioni Brigade (Hagana) failed to capture East Jerusalem from the local Arab defenders reinforced by a company of the Arab Legion’s 6th battalion during Operation Kedem.

This occurred not because of Arab offensive action, which was restrained by orders of John Bagot Glubb, but because the Jewish demolition charge intended for the iron gate was detonated by a stray artillery shell that set the Arab wooden barricade in front of the New Gate on fire, halting the Stern Gang, Hagana and Irgun troops’ advance just prior to the ceasefire announcement. Subsequently the Jordanian occupation administration had the gate sealed off. It was reopened again by the Israeli Army in 1967 following the capture of East Jerusalem during the Jordanian campaign.

The gate itself is maintained under the preservation orders, supervised by the Israel Antiquities Authority. The land around the New Gate is largely owned by the Latin Patriarchate and the Franciscan Order, which have refused to sell it to the Israeli government. It required many years to lease land from the Patriarchate between the New Gate and the Damascus Gate for a park. In the current urban layout of Jerusalem the New Gate provides the quickest route from the Old City to West Jerusalem, including via Egged No.1 & 2 buses, via its HaSha’ar HaKhadash road.



November 10, 2015
by Fehmida

High Places, Altars and the Bamah

High Places, Altars and the Bamah


The open-air altar shrine, called a bamah (plural bamot), is known through several books of the Biblical canon—but none more so than the Book of Kings, where they play a prominent role in assessing the performance of a king. Often referred to as “high places” in translations of the Bible, bamot were worship sites that usually contained an altar. A general understanding about the bamah and how it functioned can be gained by using evidence from the Biblical text as well as archaeology.The term bamah can mean back, hill, height, ridge or cultic high place.1 In the Biblical text it is used to mean “the back of one’s enemies” (Deuteronomy 33:29), “heights” (Deuteronomy 32:13; Isaiah 58:14; Micah 1:3; Amos 4:13; Haggai 3:19; Psalm 18:34), “back of clouds” (Isaiah 14:14) or “waves of sea” (Job 9:8).2 Because of this, eminent scholar Roland de Vaux said, “The idea which the word expresses, therefore, is something which stands out in relief from its background, but the idea of a mountain or hill is not contained in the word itself.”3 This could explain why this word is used even though some of the shrines were not located on hills. The Ugaritic and Akkadian cognate usually means an animal’s back or trunk.4 The Akkadian can also mean land that is elevated.5 In the text of the Bible they can be found on hills (2 Kings 16:4; 17:9-10; 1 Kings 11:7), towns (1 Kings 13:32; 2 Kings 17:29; 23:5) and at the gate of Jerusalem (2 Kings 23:8). Ezra 6:3 says they were in the ravines and valleys. The position of a bamah in the valley can also be seen in Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35.

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Even though some scholars translate bamah as “high place” or “hill shrines,” there is reason to believe that many of the shrines were located in urban centers.6 Since they are often found on hills, at city gates (2 Kings 23:8) and in valleys (Jeremiah 7:31), Martin J. Selman, director of postgraduate studies and deputy principal at Spurgeon’s College, London, says, “The essential feature of a bamah was, therefore, not its location or height, though it usually consisted of at least a [human-formed] platform, sometimes with an associated building or buildings (2 Kings 17:29, 23:19), but its function as a site for religious purposes.”7 It may then be easiest to understand high places not as a reference to temporal space, but to a “higher” theological place.It is believed that bamot were artificially-made mounds, which may or may not include a prominent rock.8 There is some debate as to whether the word bamah refers to a naturally occurring mound that is already present or whether it refers to the altar itself.9 If it was something that was built, it could account for references to bamot being built (1 Kings 11:7; 14:23; 2 Kings17:9; 21:3; Jeremiah 19:5) and destroyed (2 Kings 23:8; 18:4). Often attached to the bamot were buildings (1 Samuel 9:22; 1 Kings 3:5)—houses/temples—where services were conducted and idols were kept (1 Kings 12:31; 2 Kings 17:29, 32; 23:19).10 Famed archaeologist W. F. Albright has claimed that the bamot were used for funerary purposes, but this has been challenged by W. Boyd Barrick.11

De Vaux suggested that Israelite bamot were modeled after the Canaanite ones.12 The bamah is also known from the Ras Shamra text.13 In Megiddo, located in the Carmel Ridge overlooking the Jezreel Valley from the west, a bamah was believed to have been found. The structure was a 24 x 30-foot oval platform, which stood six feet tall, was made of large stones and had stairs that lead to the top.14 A wall surrounded the structure. A cultic structure found in Nahariyah, located in Western Galilee, was discovered in 1947 and dates to the Middle Bronze Age, but was used until the Late Bronze Age.15 It consisted of a circular open-air altar, which compares to the one found in Megiddo, and a rectangular building probably used as a temple workshop.16 It is also believed that two bamot were found on a hill near Malhah from the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. De Vaux says, “There is no need for hesitation: these installations were bamah. Their dates range from the old Canaanite epoch to the end of the monarchy in Judah.”17 Therefore, it seems that the archaeological evidence supports the Biblical account in placement of the bamot and the time periods in which they were used.

Tel Gezer’s first excavator, R.A.S. Macalister, believed there was a “high place” dedicated to child sacrifice at the Canaanite site. William G. Dever disagrees. Read more >>


It is the general consensus that before the Temple was built in Jerusalem, the people legitimately worshiped at the bamot.18 Leading scholar Beth Alpert Nakhai says, “The long legitimate bamot and the ancient sanctuary at Bethel were not viewed as symbols of Israel’s wicked past.”19 However, the text does not really say that this type of worship was all right even at that time. In fact, the stress on “the place” suggests that Solomon should be getting on with the building of the Temple in order for these shrines to be done away with and that the shrines were slowing down the process. Even at this stage the shrines were viewed as less than the ideal, especially considering that the ideal was possible. Yet, the understanding of “the place” is not simple. The phrase “the place where God is to set his name” is only found in three Old Testament books, Deuteronomy, Chronicles and Kings.Some scholars, such as Selman, believe that as long as authentic Yahweh worship was performed at the bamot, there was not a problem with their existence, particularly the shrine at Gibeon (1 Samuel 9:16-24; 1 Kings 3:4-5; 2 Chonicles 1:3-7).20 They argue that it was not until the reforms of Josiah that the shrines were viewed as unacceptable. These scholars have not ignored the earlier pronouncements against the bamot, but have interpreted them as judgments against foreign worship or syncretism, especially regarding the asherah poles and the massebot.21

Some argue that the bamot were not the issue themselves, but the issue was syncretism and sacred pillars and poles. However, the vast majority of times the bamot are mentioned, it is in connection to kings who receive a positive review (1 Kings 15:14; 22:43; 2 Kings 12:3; 14:4; 15:4; 15:35; 16:4; 18:4; 18:22; 23:5-20). In fact, in the case of Asa (15:14) he is said to have displaced the Queen mother because of her use of an asherah (v.13). Walsh says, “A king’s attitude toward the high places will be one of the criteria on which the narrator judges him: If he attempts to destroy them, he is good; if he leaves them alone, he is mediocre; if he worships there, he is evil to the core.”22 This suggests that while there were times when syncretism and asherim use were a part of the bamot (1 Kings 11:7; 12:31-32; 13:2; 13:22-33; 14:23; 17:9-11; 17:29-32; 21:3), there were more times when these elements were not present. Therefore, the text seems to indicate that there was something wrong with the bamot themselves.

Read “Asherah and the Asherim: Goddess or Cult Symbol?” in Bible History Daily >>

Therefore, one must determine why the bamot are so problematic. The most convincing theory is that after the Temple was built in Jerusalem, it was no longer appropriate to worship elsewhere (1 Kings 3:2), especially in light of Deuteronomy 12.23 However, when exactly this was understood by historical Israel is harder to determine. Richard D. Nelson of the Perkins School of Theology claims that this is to set the worship of Yahweh apart from the worship of Baal: “The plurality of shrines inevitably reflected the local multiplicity of Canaanite Baal worship, implying a Yahweh of Dan and another Yahweh at Bethel.”24 Theological heavyweight Walter Brueggeman concurs with this analysis and says that these shrines compromised Yahweh’s jealous claim to Israel.25 This does not mean that those who were living in Israel during the monarchal period would have recognized this shift, but that the condemnation is a reflection of the author/redactor’s theology.26This theory that the condemnation is a reflection of a later understanding would also explain the exceptions to criticism of the high place, such as 1 Samuel 9:12-14, 19, 25 and 1 Samuel 10:5, 13. In other words, the actual opinion of the people of the monarchy comes through in the text, but that later theology has begun to condemn worship in places other than the Temple in Jerusalem. Jeffery J. Niehaus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary says, “The Carmel event clearly shows that Yahweh can approve a sacrifice not offered at the ‘chosen place,’ and in a most dramatic way, when it is offered in a special context and for a special purpose.” Yet, the bamot are not “special” as in unique or uncommon; they are a place of ongoing regular worship. Therefore, the example of Carmel only heightens the contrast between a special theophanic event and an ongoing part of the cult, which demonstrates a stage in the development of centralization.

ellen-whiteEllen White, Ph.D. (Hebrew Bible, University of St. Michael’s College), is the senior editor at the Biblical Archaeology Society. She has taught at five universities across the U.S. and Canada and spent research leaves in Germany and Romania. She has also been actively involved in digs at various sites in Israel.


1. Martin J. Selman, “1195 במה,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegsis 1, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), p. 670.
2. An example of a bamah can be found in Yigael Yadin, “Beer-Sheba: The High Place Destroyed by King Josiah,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 222 (1976), p. 10. It should be noted that while Yadin claims that this is a bamah, the original excavator of Beer-Sheba claimed that the bamah there had been destroyed in Stratum II.
3. Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1961), p. 284.
4. It has been claimed that other than when used of Israel, the term bamot is never used cultically of any other culture other than Moab. In the Biblical text it is only found in connection to Moab (1 Kings 11:7; Isaiah 15:2; 16:12; Jeremiah 48:35), and it is also found on the Mesha Stela at 11.11, 13. However, it is not found in any Canaanite literature or any Phoenician or Ugaritic texts (In Numbers 33:52 it appears to refer to the Canaanites, but that they were camped in the plains of Moab maintains the exclusive connection with the Moabites). For more on the connection to Moab, see J. M. Grintz, “Some Observations on the High-Place in the History of Israel,” Vetus Testamentum 27 (1977), p. 111–113.
5. De Vaux, Ancient Israel, p. 284.
6. John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), p. 359.
7. Selman, NIDOTTE 1, p. 670.
8. J. Robinson, The First Book of Kings, Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1972), p. 139.
9. De Vaux, Ancient Israel, p. 285.
10. Mordecai Cogan, 1 Kings, Anchor Bible 10 (New York: Doubleday, 2001), p. 184.
11. W. Boyd Barrick, “The Funerary Character of ‘High-Places’ in Ancient Palestine: A Reassessment,” Vetus Testamentum 25 (1975), pp. 565–595.
12. De Vaux, Ancient Israel, p. 284.
13. John Gray, I & II Kings (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1963), p. 116.
14. De Vaux, Ancient Israel, p. 284.
15. Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), p. 29.
16. Keel and Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, pp. 29–30.
17. De Vaux, Ancient Israel, p. 285.
18. Walton, Matthews and Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background, p. 359.
19. Beth Alpert Nakhai, Archaeology and the Religions of Canaan and Israel (Boston: ASOR, 2001), p. 69.
20. Selman, NIDOTTE 1, p. 670.
21. Selman, NIDOTTE 1, p. 670; De Vaux, Ancient Israel, p. 286. A massebot “as an object of cult, it recalled a manifestation of a god, and was a sign of the divine presence”; De Vaux, Ancient Israel, p. 285. This is related to the narrative of Jacob at Bethel who sets up a massebot and declares the place Beth El (Genesis 28:18; 31:13). This is related to the asherah, which represents a female deity, as opposed to the male deity of the massebot; De Vaux, Ancient Israel, p. 286 (This is debated based on evidence from Gezer and Tel Kitan, which suggests it could be either male or female according to Keel and Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses, p. 33). This relates to the reference in 2 Kgs 3:2 to the massebot of Baal. Both seem to be represented by poles; the asherah can also be a living tree and sometimes the name of the goddess herself; the massebot can also be a stone pillar; De Vaux, Ancient Israel, p. 286. The bamot are also associated with hammanim which used to be translated “pillars of sin,” but are now understood as “altars of incense” due to the evidence provided by the Nabatean and Palmyra inscriptions (1 Kings 3:33; 22:44; 2 Kings 12:4); De Vaux, Ancient Israel, p. 286. Mazar suggests that the “Bull-shrine” he has excavated could possibly be a bamot, where either Yahweh or Baal was worshipped due to the connection both gods have with the figure of the bull. For sketches and photos of the site see, A. Mazar, “The ‘Bull-Site’ – An Iron Age I Open Cult Place,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 247 (1982), pp. 27–42.
22. John H., Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IN: InterVarsity, 2000), p. 72.
23. See Richard D. Nelson, Deuteronomy, Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), pp. 142–161; Duane L. Christensen, Deuteronomy 1:1-21:9, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001), pp. 230–249.
24. Richard D. Nelson, First and Second Kings, Interpretation (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1987), p. 81.
25. Walter Brueggemann, 1 Kings, Knox Preaching Guides (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), p. 63.
26. J. Maxwell Miller and John H. Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), p. 202.