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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Preface

The Bible is one of the foundational texts of our culture and of the three major monotheistic traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is a complex document—a set of anthologies, in fact. Thus, fully to understand the Bible requires a knowledge of the contexts in which it was produced, the many cultures of the ancient Near East and the ancient Mediterranean—the biblical world. For numerous reasons, presenting a history of the biblical world is an ambitious task. The scope of that history is vast, covering at the very least more than two thousand years and spanning three continents. Through archaeological research, new discoveries continue to be made, requiring modifications to earlier views and sometimes reconsideration of interpretive models based on less complete data. Moreover, the study of history itself is in flux. New approaches require, for example, broadening the focus of earlier scholars on the elite, their rulers, and their struggles for power to include the lives of the mostly anonymous ordinary people in the societies of which the elite were only the upper crust. These new data and new perspectives make it possible to take a fresh look at the well-traveled terrain of the biblical world.

The geographical focus of this history is the region variously known as the land of Canaan, Israel, Judea, and Palestine, with appropriate attention to the larger geophysical context and the geopolitical entities that over millennia were the matrix for biblical Israel and its successors, the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities. When to begin and end a history of the biblical world is more difficult to decide. The Bible itself begins with creation but dates it aeons later than modern scientific understanding of the origins of the universe allows. As the early chapters of this book will show, it is impossible to correlate with any certainty the events described in the first books of the Bible with known historical realities. Yet it is appropriate to set the core of our history into a larger context, as biblical tradition itself does, for there are demonstrable continuities between the earliest civilizations of the ancient Near East and ancient Israel, early Judaism, and early Christianity. The book thus begins with a sketch of the prehistory of the region.

When to end is also problematic. Surveys of the history of ancient Israel sometimes conclude with the revolt of the Maccabees in the mid-first century BCE, which corresponds to the dates for the latest books of the Hebrew Bible (the Jewish scriptures); or the Roman general Pompey's capture of Jerusalem in 63 BCE; or the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE; or the end of the Second Jewish Revolt against the Romans in 135 CE. This last is also a frequent terminus for surveys of Christian origins, since the scholarly consensus is that the latest books of the New Testament had been completed by then.

Our approach, however, emphasizes continuities and trajectories. The formation of a canon, a collection of writings defined as scripture, was in fact not a discrete event but part of a process that began before any part of the Bible was written and continued after religious authorities in Judaism and in different branches of Christianity limited the contents of their respective canons. The communities that shaped the Bible became, as they developed, communities shaped by the Bible—“People of the Book,” as the Quran puts it. And because this connection to the Bible is not only Jewish and Christian but also Muslim, our history concludes by briefly considering developments in the first few centuries of Judaism and Christianity and the beginning of Islam.

Most earlier historical syntheses have focused largely on political history and monumental remains. While not neglecting such areas, this volume also includes within its scope themes that have emerged in recent scholarship. These include the roles of women in various periods and the tensions between urban and rural settings, royal and kinship social structures, and official and popular religion. In this volume, then, we intend not just to present the outlines of political history but to set the progress of archaeological ages and historical eras, of kings and emperors, of conquerors and conquests, into as broad a social context as possible—to provide, as it were, harmony for the melody of the chronological sequence followed in this book.

Within the last decade, some scholars have adopted what has come to be called a minimalist approach to ancient Israel. In its most extreme form, this approach discounts the Bible as a credible witness because of the ideological bias of its historical narratives and because they were written centuries after the times they purport to describe. In a minimalist view, without independent contemporaneous confirmation, the events and individuals described in biblical tradition are at best suspect and in many cases may be purely fictional. Thus, for example, for minimalists the narratives about the establishment of the Davidic dynasty have no historical core, being later constructions intended to legitimate political structures of another era. Such radical skepticism recalls the view, which no responsible scholar would now accept, that the absence of contemporaneous evidence for Jesus of Nazareth means that he did not exist. To be sure, there is fictional narrative in the Bible, and myth, and most certainly ideological bias. But that does not discount it as an indispensable historical witness. Rather, the Bible must be carefully and critically considered along with all other available data—including not just other ancient texts, but nonwritten artifacts as well. For, as much as any sherd or stratum uncovered by archaeologists, the Bible too is an artifact—a curated artifact, in William Dever's apt phrase—requiring interpretation in the light of its immediate and larger contexts and by comparison with parallels. The contributors to this volume share that methodological conviction as well as a commitment to the historical enterprise—the reconstruction of the past based on the critical assessment of all available evidence. They also share a tempered optimism that such a reconstruction is possible. As indicated above, this is of necessity an ongoing task, as new discoveries continue to be made and new paradigms are brought into play.

Each of the distinguished contributors to this book is a scholar of extraordinary breadth and depth. Cumulatively, they have mastered dozens of languages and spent many decades in the field excavating and interpreting material remains, and they have devoted their careers to the historical enterprise. They bring to their chapters different perspectives and differently nuanced interpretations of the complex and often incomplete data, and I have not attempted to reconcile their views into a superficial consistency. Given our incomplete knowledge, unanimity on a variety of issues would be misleading; some overlap at the margins between chapters is deliberate and may assist readers not entirely familiar with the details of the evidence.

The translation of the Bible normally used in the pages that follow is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), except when contributors have supplied their own translations to elucidate their arguments. Following the custom of most translations since antiquity, the NRSV substitutes “the Lord” for Yahweh, the proper name of the god of Israel; contributors have often returned to the original name both in quotation of biblical material and in discussion of Israelite beliefs and practices. In accord with growing practice by scholars and nonscholars alike, in this volume the designations BCE (for “Before the Common Era”) and CE (“Common Era”) are used for the chronological divisions respectively abbreviated as BC and AD.

Finally, a few words of gratitude. For assistance in tracking down photographs and illustrations. Alan Gottlieb has been of immeasurable assistance. I have been especially fortunate to have as collaborators not just the contributors themselves but also a number of talented editors in the Trade Reference Department at Oxford University Press. Among these I especially thank Linda Halvorson and Liza Ewell, for assistance in developing the book's concept; Liz Sonneborn, who helped transform the concept into coherent reality; James Miller, for his skillful editing of the first draft of the volume; and Ellen Satrom, who with patience and expertise guided the book through the complicated final stages from manuscript to publication. Their shared commitment to this project has been a model of professionalism and dedication, and I am grateful to them all.

Michael D. Coogan

Concord, Massachusetts

July 1998

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