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Posts Tagged ‘deluge’

Rembrandt painting of Moses

Rembrandt: Moses With the Ten Commandments. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The question of who wrote Genesis has long been disputed among the erudites of religion and academia. I have a particular interest in the issue as a fiction writer, because the first installments of my Edhai fiction series are all set during the time period covered by the Bible book of Genesis, particularly the very earliest history recounted in Gen 1-11, from the creation of the first humans up to the time of Abraham.

Traditionally, Judaism and Christianity have asserted that Genesis was written by the Hebrew prophet Moses during the mid-second-millennium B.C.E. However, over the last couple hundred years, mainstream academia and many religious scholars adopted an idea called the documentary hypothesis (DH). According to this idea, the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) is actually a compilation of various original documents written between the early- and mid-first millennium B.C.E. There are various versions of the DH, but the classic version identifies four key sources for the Pentateuch:

  •  J, the Jahwist source — Prefers the personal name of God (YHWH, JHVH; Yahweh or Jehovah), particularly before Exodus chapter 3.
  • E, the Elohist source — Prefers the generic title “Elohim,” particularly before Exodus 3.
  • D, the Deuteronomist source — A purported later source that starts with the book of Deuteronomy and continues with other Bible books, such as Joshua and Judges
  • P, the Priestly source — Concerned with ritual and formalism and prefers the title Elohim in referring to God.

At Wikiversity, you can see a helpful text of the King James Bible, with the purported sources highlighted in different colors. Reviewing that overlay, I can see that the portion of Genesis I’m writing about, chapters 1 through 11, is attributed primarily to the Priestly and Jahwist sources, with ‘additions by a redactor’ inserted in some portions, supposedly to provide transitional language that ties the various original documents together to make a whole.

For a basic overview of the documentary hypothesis, see the lesson on “Source Criticism” maintained by theology professor Ronald A. Simkins, but written, I think, by Ralph W. Klein.

Fundamentally, the documentary hypothesis is based on analysis of the content of the Bible, rather than on a rigorous historical investigation. If different portions of the text exhibit different styles or different interests, those portions are attributed to different sources. If the investigators believe they have uncovered contradictions or anachronisms, those problems are attributed to the diversity of author sources.

Chart showing sources for the documentary hypothesis

Chart of sources according to the Documentary Hypothesis. Vadym Zhuravlov, via Wikimedia Commons.

However, many of the adherents of the documentary hypothesis take things much further than the mere assertion that the Pentateuch is based on multiple documents. They employ complicated explanations to attribute those sources to particular time periods and to various religious and political elements within the nation of Israel, often with conflicting aims and agendas. In the conventional view, none of the four DH sources dates back before about 950 B.C.E., which would rule out any association with the historical Moses, about 500 years before then. In fact, many scholars claim that Moses never existed, or at least that he wasn’t anything like the personage portrayed in the Bible. Such extreme views are in turn used to convince students and the public that the Bible is fictional, and to prop up the materialist-atheistic bias that controls much of academia today.

For many of us, these assertions are too extreme and speculative to be given much credence. Back into antiquity, Moses has been recognized by historians and by Jewish and Christian authorities as an historical character and the writer of the Pentateuch. In his history The Antiquities of the Jews (Book 1, Chapter 1), the first-century Roman Jewish historian Josephus frankly attributes the Genesis creation account to the literal Moses, including in his summary of that account such comments as “… but Moses said it was one day…,” “Accordingly Moses says,” and “Moreover, Moses, after the seventh day was over, begins to talk philosophically …”

All of this is not to say that there is no room for a nuanced understanding of the sources of Genesis. It’s possible that Moses himself might have been working from pre-existing written or oral sources in producing some parts of the Genesis account. Chapters 7 and 8 read almost like a mariner’s log or journal. Could Moses have been in possession of Noah’s account of his survival of the great flood? Possibly. Some portions of Genesis read as if they could have come from previous documents. For example, Genesis 5 starts with “This is the book of Adam’s history.” Genesis 6:9 starts Noah’s story with “This is the history of Noah.”

Some scholars suggest that certain issues with the text of Moses’ writings might be explained by the work of later copyists. In Creation and Chaos, Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke writes,

[O]thers have not been persuaded by these [Documentary] arguments and would still trace the basic unity of the Pentateuch back to Moses without denying that the text was modernized in the course of its transmission according to the common Near Eastern scribal practices.

The point here is that I find no good reason to discount the existence of Moses or his writership of the Pentateuch. The Genesis account, including the first eleven chapters, are a legitimate source on which to base a storytelling project, which can reasonably considered historical fiction.

ARK, 23 February 2015

 

 

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My story The Child-Stealers has gone live on Amazon, so readers can now purchase it in ebook form for Kindle for only $.99 US. The Child-Stealers is the novella-length first episode of a longer novel, The Cursed Ground, an historical-fiction story set in the ancient world.

Cover for The Child-Stealers, by A. Roy KingTo purchase the novel for your Kindle or Kindle reading app on your tablet or mobile phone, please head over to the book’s Amazon order page at:

http://www.amazon.com/Cursed-Ground-Child-Stealers-Edhai-ebook/dp/B00PXIKE4G

In about another week, I will be releasing The Child Stealers in other formats (such as EPUB and PDF) through the Smashwords site.

The Child-Stealers has already garnered some great reviews from early readers. Here are a few excerpts:

“Give yourself enough time to read it in one sitting — as a novella, it’s do-able, and once you start it, you won’t want to put it down. And by the time you’re finished, you’ll have some questions you’ll want King to answer in book two.” — Stephen B. White

“[W]e get to the first key moment of crisis and its aftermath before we can catch our breath. A mark of a good page turner…. Will I read the remaining sections of the book as King publishes them? You bet, because he has me truly wanting to know what has become of characters I came to care for.” — Dr. Grover B. Proctor, Jr.

“Overall a better than average effort from a new author …, who is writing to entertain you with a thoughtful, interesting story, not to listen to himself describing scenery or yammer on about the ideal societies. I’d buy the next installment after reading this one. A worthwhile read for the price.” — David Sims

My long game here is to produce a series of historical novels based on Biblical settings, but with the focus on storytelling rather than religious themes. This A. Roy King blog serves as a way to connect with readers and to share some of the research and thinking that goes into the writing. I also publish an email newsletter, “News and Updates From A. Roy King.” The newsletter is the best way to keep informed of new episodes of The Cursed Ground as they are released. I also use it to let readers know about new articles I’ve written and news about historical and archaeological discoveries that relate to the ancient times I’m writing about. To sign up for the newsletter, please follow this link to the subscription form:

http://eepurl.com/2U3Uf

ARK — 20 January 2015

 

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I have a practical reason for asking what it would be like to live for hundreds of years: I’m facing the problem of portraying fictional characters in the ancient pre-flood world described in the Bible. What would it be like to live for three hundred, six hundred, eight hundred years? How should I write characters of such long ages in a work of fiction?

The Sumerian King-List. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Sumerian King-List as inscribed on the Weld-Blundell Prism. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Part 1 of my novel The Cursed Ground is scheduled for release on Jan. 20, 2015, and further episodes are in development and should be following rapidly after that. The main characters in the story are younger, in their twenties through fifties. But some minor characters are much older, so I’ve already been confronting the challenge a bit.

Since I was already grappling with this question, I was intrigued by a recent article pointing to extra-biblical references to long age-spans among ancient humans. Tara MacIsaac, writing for Epoch Times (see “Did Ancient People Really Have Lifespans Longer Than 200 Years?“) brings together accounts from a variety of cultures describing such lifespans.

The long lifespans of humans before the Great Deluge are well-known in Western civilization and among those familiar with the Bible. Look up Genesis chapter 5, and you’ll read that the first human, Adam, lived to be 930 years, his son Seth 912 years, Enosh 905 years, and so on. According to Gen. 7: 6, “Noah was 600 years old when the floodwaters came upon the earth.” Even after the Deluge, the long lifespans continued, Abraham living to 175 years, according to Gen. 25:7,8. Some have suggested that the human lifespan decreased after the Flood because of changed atmospheric conditions or the lack of some key nutrients on the earth. Another explanation is that the length of a human life declined as the race got further away from the original perfection of Adam.

However, as MacIsaac points out, the Bible account is not the only source that cites longer lifetimes among ancient humans. Another well-known source she cites is the Sumerian King-List, an ancient Bronze-Age manuscript in the Sumerian language found in various sources. The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL) provides the following translation:

1-39. After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king; he ruled for 28800 years. Alalĝar ruled for 36000 years. 2 kings; they ruled for 64800 years. Then Eridug fell and the kingship was taken to Bad-tibira. In Bad-tibira, En-men-lu-ana ruled for 43200 years. En-men-gal-ana ruled for 28800 years. Dumuzid, the shepherd, ruled for 36000 years. 3 kings; they ruled for 108000 years. Then Bad-tibira fell (?) and the kingship was taken to Larag. In Larag, En-sipad-zid-ana ruled for 28800 years. 1 king; he ruled for 28800 years. Then Larag fell (?) and the kingship was taken to Zimbir. In Zimbir, En-men-dur-ana became king; he ruled for 21000 years. 1 king; he ruled for 21000 years. Then Zimbir fell (?) and the kingship was taken to Šuruppag. In Šuruppag, Ubara-Tutu became king; he ruled for 18600 years. 1 king; he ruled for 18600 years. In 5 cities 8 kings; they ruled for 241200 years. Then the flood swept over.
40-94. After the flood had swept over, and the kingship had descended from heaven, the kingship was in Kiš.

As you can see, the King-List claims some immense time periods for the reigns of those ancient kings, tens of thousands of years. Most researchers think those kings are fictional or mythical — or if real, that their reigns are exaggerated. MacIsaac says some scholars have suggested that a mathematical process might have been used to generate those long time periods — squares or multiples of 60, for example.

My Ancient History professor once compared the long ages in the pre-flood Sumerian King-List with those in the Bible, concluding, “See? It’s the same thing!” I found myself thinking, Well, no it’s not really the same thing to say that someone lived 930 years and to say that someone else lived for longer than 28,800 years. That’s a difference of two orders of magnitude. However, that professor was a big guy and pretty mean-looking, and the way he conducted his class you weren’t encouraged to even comment or ask a question, much less challenge his assertions.

MacIsaac mentions other sources that ascribe long ages to ancient peoples. Even after the Deluge, the Sumerian King-List attributes long ages to monarchs, although the reigns are much shorter, most in the hundreds of years. The Shahnameh, a Persian epic, MacIsaac writes, “tells of kings reigning 1,000 years, several hundred years, down to 150 years, and so on.” She also quotes a book by a Chinese medical scholar writing about longevity:

According to Chinese medical records, a doctor named Cuie Wenze of the Qin dynasty lived to be 300 years old. Gee Yule of the later Han dynasty lived to be 280 years old. A high ranking Taoist master monk, Hui Zhao, lived to be 290 years old and Lo Zichange lived to be 180 years old. As recorded in the The Chinese Encyclopedia of Materia Medica, He Nengci of the Tang dynasty lived to be 168 years old. A Taoist master, Li Qingyuan, lived to be 250 years old. In modern times, a traditional Chinese medicine doctor, Lo Mingshan of Sichuan province, lived to be 124 years old.

But what about creating fictional characters hundreds of years old? One thing I can imagine is that, if you could live the equivalent of ten or twenty of today’s lifetimes — and still have good health and a sound mind — you could attain a much greater fund of knowledge and skill. So I am planning on developing characters who have become experts in multiple domains. Perhaps you can imagine a single long-lived person mastering such diverse skills as farming, homebuilding, boatbuilding, sailing, writing, music, visual arts, and handcrafts.

Another option would be to create characters who have stuck with one single domain but who have mastered it beyond anything we could imagine today. This makes me think of Cain’s descendants, who became famous for founding complex lifestyles, musical genres, and metallurgical technologies (see Gen. 4:17-24).

Jeanne Louise Calment (1875-1997), who lived to 122 years, the longest lifespan confirmed in modern times. Shown here at age 20. Source: Wikipedia.

Jeanne Louise Calment (1875-1997), who lived to 122 years, the longest lifespan confirmed in modern times. Shown here at age 20. Source: Wikipedia.

But what about less material aspects of someone’s life? If we lived for hundreds of years, how would our character and personality develop? We think of ourselves as mature at the age of forty or fifty, but in reality we are children in comparison with someone five hundred years old. I imagine that great age would be no guarantee of one’s becoming a better person, though. A long lifespan might allow more opportunity to increase in hatefulness or violence. I’m dealing with this theme a little in Part 2 of The Cursed Ground, which I am calling “Children of the Keeper,” and which focuses on the descendants of Cain.

What are your thoughts? What kinds of things might people of ancient times have been able to accomplish during their long lifetimes? Or what mischief might have they gotten up to? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

Also, don’t forget to sign up for my email newsletter, “News and Updates From A. Roy King” to keep up with new releases from my historical-fiction series, as well as new articles and other announcements.

ARK — 22 December 2014

 

 

 

 

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Cover for The Child-StealersI wanted to let readers know that the first episode in my historical-fiction novel “The Cursed Ground” is scheduled for release 20 January 2015. This is a novella-length story called “The Child-Stealers,” and will be released first as a Kindle ebook on Amazon. I’m still making decisions about how to release a print version.

If you’ve read some of the pieces on this web site, you’ll know that I study and write about alternative perspectives on ancient history, with a special emphasis on the historicity of the Biblical narrative. All of that investigation is related to this fiction series. “The Cursed Ground,” of which “The Child-Stealers” is the first part, is set in the ancient world before the Biblical Deluge.

To give you an idea of the content, here is the description from the Amazon catalog page:

In “The Child-Stealers,” a young man named Boon undertakes a desperate search for his kidnapped sister, aided by a small force of loyal companions. Traveling from the peaceful agricultural community called the Till, Boon and his friends must learn how to face conflict and must unravel the mystery of the fierce raiders who are carrying off children into the wilderness.

This novella-length story is the first episode of “The Cursed Ground” historical-adventure series. A saga set in the ancient world, “The Cursed Ground” tells the story of a group of defenders who struggle to protect their communities from the growing violence in the world around them. Meanwhile, a small brotherhood is charged with carrying an unpopular message to humankind: The Creator has declared that this violent world will come to an end.

ARK — 26 November 2014

 

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Deluge by Paul Gustave Dore

The Deluge, bu Paul Gustave Dore. via Wikimedia

As a novelist setting a fictional story in the world before the Biblical Deluge, I find myself frequently having to make decisions about how to portray an ancient world that is only briefly described in the Bible account. One of those decisions has to do with the Nephilim, who are described at Gen 6: 1,2 4.

(Just so you know, I’m getting ready to release the first episode of an historical epic I’m calling The Cursed Ground, set in the ancient world. Once I start to release these stories, this blog might make a little more sense to interested folks.)

The question of who the Nephilim were came up recently in a discussion with a reader of my email newsletter, News and Updates From A. Roy King. As I understand it, there are two basic ideas about the identity of the Nephilim — that they were either humans or hybrid offspring of humans and materialized angels. I told my reader that the second explanation is the one that has always made the most sense to me. He raised the very good question whether angels have DNA that would allow them to have semi-human children. Since angels are spirit beings, it seems unlikely that they have DNA in their spirit state. However, various Bible accounts show that spirit beings are able to come to the earth and manifest physical bodies that can be touched and that can even eat — see Gen 18:8 and Luke 24:30. Such physical bodies could presumably have a genetic structure with the capability of reproducing.

Anyway, my primary interest here is not to get into long discussions over Biblical exegesis, but to explore the development of a fictional world. As I suggested above, I decided to portray the Nephilim as the offspring of humans and fallen angels. The Bible account associates the Nephilim with the increase of wickedness and violence on the earth, so I’ve decided to portray them as villains, along with their angelic fathers.

Doctored photo purporting to show archaeologists discovering skeletons of giants.

Doctored photo purporting to show archaeologists discovering skeletons of giants.

In working on this series, I’ve read many other fictional treatments of the pre-flood era — call it competitive research. Some of them try to follow the Biblical story closely, and others are more fanciful. I’ve written a couple of reviews over at Goodreads — see my reviews of Darren Aronofsky’s graphic novel Noah and of William Guy’s mythology-based story The Last Nephilim. Both of these stories present the Nephilim in a nuanced way, portraying them as not all and totally wicked, and even as potentially redeemable. It’s an interesting treatment, but in the end, I decided not to go in that direction.

In spite of all this discussion of the identity of the Biblical Nephilim, the true focus of my Edhai/Martyroi series (that’s what I’m calling the larger saga) is not on villains, but on humans and what it might have been like to live on the earth at various times in human history from a Biblical perspective. So the Nephilim and fallen angels are basically minor peripheral characters in these stories.

Some Bibles translate the Hebrew word ne-phi-lim’ as “giants.” I’m portraying them as unnaturally large, but more within the known range of human height, which seems to be able to reach as far as nine or ten feet.

I’ve written before about giants. One of the most popular articles on this site discusses the question whether archaeologists have discovered skeletons of giants and are covering up the fact — see “Have Archaeologists Found Skeletons of Biblical Giants in Greece?

Another question I’ve discussed has been “Could Giant Humans Exist?” In that post I explore the physical limits of the human body.

ARK

 

 

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Bronze head of a king, thought to be Sargon of Akkad. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Bronze head of a king, thought to be Sargon of Akkad. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I was going to write a very brief blog entry about Enheduanna, an ancient Sumerian priestess thought to be the first named author in history. I thought it was interesting that that honor fell to a woman. But as often happens, I kind of plunged down a rabbit-hole when I started to try to pin down some of the details.

Enheduanna was the name of an Akkadian priestess of the moon-god Nanna and daughter of the king known as Sargon of Akkad. I came across Enheduanna in “The Rhetoric of Origins and the Other: Reading the Ancient Figure of Enheduanna,” a chapter by Roberta Binkley in the book Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks. Binkley is lecturer in rhetoric at Arizona State University (see an essay by her about Enheduanna here).

(Here at this website and blog I’m focusing on my historical-fiction writing project, The Cursed Ground. However, under another pen name I write non-fiction, thus the interest in rhetoric.)

Binkley’s chapter is fascinating for all kinds of reasons, but I was struck by her statement that Enheduanna is “the first named historical author.” (47) Enheduanna “lived and wrote around 2300 B.C.E.,” says Binkley, “almost two thousand years before the “golden age” of Greece. (48) I found that tidbit fascinating, that the earliest-known named writer was a woman. Beyond that, I was eager to read Binkley and the other authors who contributed chapters to the book, just because they challenge the received wisdom that rhetoric started in fifth- or fourth-century Athens.

To be frank, though, I got a little stuck on Binkley’s dating of Enheduanna at “around 2300 B.C.E.” The Wikipedia entry on Enheduanna places her a few years later, at 2285-2250 BCE. It seemed to me doubtful that the lifetime of someone living so long ago could be known so definitely that it could be placed within a 50-year range like that. How can they be so certain?

I get a little cranky when experts act too certain about events of the past and their dates — see my blog entry “How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?” An expert in one field generally only has time to thoroughly investigate his or her own narrow specialty enough to feel justified in making strong assertions. When it comes to placing their findings within the larger historical context, they tend to just go with whatever is asserted by other experts. This seems to go on frequently in academia, with the result that multitudes of specialists end up relying on other specialists, and they all kind of cooperate to construct this vast chronological model of the human past, everybody trusting the soundness of the others’ scholarship.

Most of it is valuable work and worth consulting, but is the great hypothetical model of the past so certain that the everyday thinking person should just accept it all on faith?

Enheduanna is believed to have been the daughter of Sargon of Akkad, a.k.a, Sargon the Great. He used to be known as Sargon I, but then researchers found out about an even earlier Sargon, who now gets that designation. Some think that “Sargon” might really be more of a title than a proper name. Anyway, out of my interest in Enheduanna and her lifetime, I learned that Sargon of Akkad’s lifetime is actually somewhat uncertain. In the information box in his Wikipedia entry, his dates are listed as c. 2334-2279 BCE. (For this entry, I’m relying quite a bit on Wikipedia — maybe I’ll jump further down this rabbit-hole in the future, but I expect Wikipedia can be trusted as accurate for something like this.)

However, if you read the detailed discussion of Sargon’s origins and rise to power, you’ll see that the 2334-2279 range is based on what’s called the “Middle Chronology.” Meaning there are other chronologies. In fact, the Sargon article also mentions a “short chronology,” which dates Sargon later, at 2270-2215. I thought that was interesting to see two chronologies mentioned for the early period in Sumerian history, and that idea of multiple chronologies sounded familiar. I thought I had run into it before, so I went a little deeper.

In fact, consulting the article on “Chronology of the Ancient Near East,” what I found is that there are what the article editors call “competing proposals” for the chronology of the second and third millennia BCE. Here is an interesting table borrowed from the article under the section “Variant Bronze Age chronologies“:

Chronology Ammisaduqa Year 8 Reign of Hammurabi Fall of Babylon I ±
Ultra-Low 1542 BC 1696 BC – 1654 BC 1499 BC +32 a
Short or Low 1574 BC 1728 BC – 1686 BC 1531 BC ±0 a
Middle 1638 BC 1792 BC – 1750 BC 1595 BC −64 a
Long or High 1694 BC 1848 BC – 1806 BC 1651 BC −120 a

The various versions of the chronology depend greatly on the interpretation of astronomical records recovered from cuneiform tablets, particularly the Ammisaduqa tablet recording observations of the planet Venus. As you can see here, the reckoning of a key date can vary as much as 150 years, depending on which chronology you follow. The editor says that the Middle Chronology “has strong academic supporters” and that the High and Ultra-Low chronologies “are minority views,” which is probably why the Middle Chronology is the one that has prevailed in the discussions of Sargon and thus Enheduanna. However, that’s not to say that the Ultra-Low Chronology should be completely discounted. In fact, if I understand correctly, the Ultra-Low Chronology would place Enheduanna closer to 2200 BCE rather than 2300 BCE.

Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Yet, I wonder whether there are Akkadian scholars who would scoff at the 2200 date and insist that 2300 is the “right” one — see “The Way Things Are, the Way Things Were, and What Is True.”

But I digress.

Here’s another wrinkle: The Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa, the cuneiform document so important to establishing anchor dates in the ancient Near East chronologies, is not universally loved. In fact, digging down further and consulting the Wikipedia article on that document, we learn that this tablet supposedly records the movements of Venus for a mere period of 21 years during the reign of a King Ammisaduqa, a successor of Hammurabi. However, the earliest extant copies of this tablet are dated between 720 and 704 BCE. You can see from the table above that this tablet is used to fix events that supposedly occurred about 900 years earlier than its writing. Maybe the copyists did their work properly during all that long period of time, but maybe not.

In fact, V.G.Gurzadyan casts doubt on the validity of the Venus tablet altogether, as seen in this abstract from his article “On the Astronomical Records and Babylonian Chronology“:

We outline the priority of high quality data of astronomical content as our strategy for the analysis of the ancient astronomical records in the search of the absolute chronology of the Near East in II millennium BC. … We then discuss why the 56/64 year Venus cycle cannot be traced in the Venus Tablet and therefore cannot serve as an anchor for the search of chronologies. … In sum the available data support the Ultra-Low Chronology proposed in the book by H.Gasche, J.A.Armstrong, S.W.Cole and V.G.Gurzadyan, “Dating the Fall of Babylon” (1998) and, particularly, leave no astronomical background for the High Chronology. Ultra-Low Chronology is supported also by archaeological, dendrochronological, Assyrian king lists and other data as summarized at the Intern. Colloquium on Ancient Near Eastern Chronology (Ghent, July, 2000).

Oops, that’s a least one scholar who prefers the Ultra-Low Chronology.

And another wrinkle on top of the other wrinkles. The editors of the “Chronology of the Ancient Near East” article in Wikipedia also add this little tantalizing tidbit:

The chronologies of Mesopotamia, the Levant and Anatolia depend significantly on the chronology of Ancient Egypt. To the extent that there are problems in the Egyptian chronology, these issues will be inherited in chronologies based on synchronisms with Ancient Egypt.

If you want to learn something about the problems with the Egyptian chronology, I refer you again to my article “How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?

So what’s the lesson here for the average person interested in the ancient world? Maybe the lesson is that we have to be careful when supposed experts tell us they “know” what took place thousands of years ago, and when it took place. This is especially so for those who are interested in Bible history and who know the chronology set forth in that reliable set of documents. The work of historians and archaeologists and philologists and linguists — and, yes, professors of rhetoric — is immensely valuable in helping us understand the past. But beware when someone claims to have the last word about what happened in the human past.

ARK — 1 November 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How much do we really know about history — or maybe more properly, how much do we know about the human past?

(The Institute of Historical Research defines “history” as “the bodies of knowledge about the past produced by historians,” along with everything involved in producing and communicating that knowledge. That said, we often use the word “history” as an umbrella term for everything that happened in the past, and I’m not going to nitpick here.)

I often ask that question, because people who think they are erudite will sometimes tell me that I’m wrong about this or that fact about the past. Or, more often, they will just make some unequivocal statement about the past — such and such happened during such and such period, as if there were no question. (See one of my meditations about such certainty at “The Way Things Are, the Way Things Were, and What Is True.”)

Egyptian inscription, menu of Tepemankh

Inscription from tomb of Tepemankh, Giza, Egypt, conventionally dated about 2350-2300 BCE. Via Wikimedia Commons.

When historians make a statement about the past, how certain are they really? What prompted me to write about that question today was a comment contributed by a reader calling himself “Columbus” (I think his real name is Norbert — no comment on that) responding to my recent post, “Did Columbus Prove the Earth Is Round?” The commenter made reference to an article on the topic by historian Jeffrey Russell, who had this to say about what he called “the precariousness of history”:

History is precarious for three reasons: the good reason that it is extraordinarily difficult to determine “what really happened” in any series of events; the bad reason that historical scholarship is often sloppy; and the appalling reason that far too much historical scholarship consists of contorting the evidence to fit ideological models. The worst examples of such contortions are the Nazi and Communist histories of the early- and mid-twentieth century. (boldface mine)

All three reasons are causes for concern, particularly the urge for promoting ideologically-based falsehoods, one of the principal motivations behind the myth that Columbus proved the earth is round.

However, what I’m thinking about today is Russell’s reason number one, just the sheer difficulty of determining what really happened.

If you think about it, what is history based on, that is, our hypothetical narrative of the human past? Things like written documents and inscriptions, which become scarcer and more fragmentary the further back you go in time. Archaeologists help by creating conjectures based on traces of human activity dug up from the ground — the foundations of ancient buildings, shards of pottery, old pieces of metal, the occasional bone. But how much certainty does such evidence impart, especially when it comes to ancient history?

As an example, supposed erudites often assert that the Bible chronology can’t be correct, because the chronology of Egypt continues back in time before the Biblical date of the Great Flood at 2370 BCE. Many people “know” that, but what’s it based on? For the most part, two lines of shaky evidence — the puffery of Egyptian kings engraved on monuments, and an account of Egyptian history based on a source named Manetho, reputed to be an Egyptian historian living in the 3rd century BCE, more than 2,000 years after the Bible’s date for the Deluge and any Egyptian kings thought to have been living at that time. On top of that, Manetho’s history has never been found in its original complete form, and is only known from excerpts quoted in a work by the Jewish historian Josephus in the first century CE, four hundred years after the purported life of Manetho.

You still run across people who dismiss the Bible account based on that shaky foundation. Perhaps this is an example of what Russell refers to as “contorting the evidence to fit ideological models.”

But is Russell the only historian who suggests that history as commonly written is less certain than we like to let on?

Moses I. Finley

Moses I. Finley

The best reference I have found on this topic is Ancient History: Evidence and Models, a 1985 book by the Cambridge Classics scholar Moses I. Finley (1912-1986). If you’re open-minded enough to consider a criticism of history at the deepest level, I encourage you to read the book, which can be obtained through Amazon, or perhaps through an academic or public library.

However, following are a few selected quotes which help to express Finley’s thinking and observations about history as it is written.

Much of Finley’s focus is on classical Western history, beginning with Ancient Greece and Rome. In discussing Roman history as understood through Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus:

Try as we may, we cannot trace any of their written sources back beyond about 300 BC, and mostly not further than to the age of Marius and Sulla. Yet the early centuries of the Republic and the still earlier centuries that preceded it are narrated in detail in Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Where did they find their information? No matter how many older statements we can either document or posit — irrespective of possible reliability — we eventually reach a void. But ancient writers, like historians ever since, could not tolerate a void, and they filled it in one way or another, ultimately by pure invention. (9, boldface mine)

One of the problems Finley points to in reconstructing ancient history is the paucity of real primary documentation. In discussing government documents, he writes:

Outside Egypt, governmental documents available to us are solely those that the authorities chose to display publicly in lasting materials, stone or bronze (apart from the quotations that are preserved in the literary sources) …

… it is worth noting that of all the publicly displayed Roman laws, senatus consulta and imperial ‘enactments’ down to Constantine, barely one hundred are now available in some condition from the whole of the territory under Roman rule. For the whole of antiquity, in sum, what we have at our disposal (apart from Athens) is a scatter of documents from one end of the Mediterranean world to the other, the great majority of them isolated texts without a context … (37-38, boldface mine)

While Finley’s critique of history is strong, he does not assert that it is impossible to come up with a better accounting of the past, but that this requires a more systematic way to assemble and evaluate ancient sources, which he discusses in the book. It also requires that historians give up precious assumptions that have let them fool themselves into thinking they are able to unequivocally “tell ‘how it really was.'” (47)

ARK — 28 October 2014

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One of the tasks of a fiction writer is to decide what to name his or her characters. I’ve had to think carefully about how to handle that in the Edhai historical-fiction series I’m working on.

The series begins in the time before the Biblical Deluge and thus in a period when all the world spoke a single language. In more recent times — meaning the past few thousand years — people have been shorter-lived, so languages have been more apt to change. But in the pre-flood period, people lived much longer — Adam for 930 years, Seth for 912 years, Enosh for 905 years, and so on (see Gen 5:3-11). Given such longer lifetimes and the overlap among generations, I surmise that there would have been more stability in language. It would have changed less.

Even after the Flood, humans lived for a relatively long period of time, Noah living to 950 years and his son Shem to 600 years (see Gen 9:29 and 11:10, 11). This would likely also contribute to linguistic stability until the confusion of human languages at Babel sometime between 2269 and 2030 BCE during the lifetime of Peleg (Gen 10:25, 11:1-9).

What I’m getting at here is that for the first couple of thousand years of human existence all humans would likely have spoken the same language — Hebrew or something like it — and might never even have conceived of the idea of a foreign tongue. This would affect all names of humans and places, which would have been based on words and their meanings, rather than just on family traditions or the sound of the name — ‘my grandfather’s name was Robert, let’s name the baby after him’ or ‘I like the way “Chelsea” sounds.’

Tetragrammaton

The Tetragrammaton as it appears on a church window in Decorah, Iowa. via Wikimedia.

So in The Cursed Ground, the initial novel in the series, I’m choosing names with real English meanings. For example, the two main characters are named Boon and Temper. The story doesn’t deal much with historical characters like Noah and Lamech, but even when they are mentioned, I try to employ English equivalents, such as Soothe and Plainspeaker.

This is an interesting problem, but not as easily solved as you might think. Not all English words really sound that great if you try to use them as proper names — calling someone “Smart” or “Friendly” or “Robust” just doesn’t have quite the right ring to it.

What to call the true God presented an especial challenge when I was trying to decide how the characters would refer to him in the story. Ancient people who knew the name of God would have pronounced it in their own language, using something like “Yehewah” or “Jehovah” or “Yahweh.” But in the story, I wanted to have the characters speaking of God with consciousness of the meaning of his name.

The name JHVH or YHWH (a.k.a., the Tetragrammaton) in Hebrew expresses the causative form and imperfect state of the verb ha-wah’, or “become.” The divine name, then, basically means “He Causes to Become,” in that Jehovah causes himself to become whatever he wishes in order to fulfill his purposes. Thus I decided that in The Cursed Ground and in the sequels to follow, the characters who know this God would refer to him as “He Who Causes to Become,” or, more often “the Becomer.”

Anyhow, I thought I would share my thought process leading to the way names are devised in the Edhai series, in case this might be of interest to readers.

ARK — 22 October 2014

 

 

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I was intrigued recently to read an article by independent scholar Bengt Sage, “Noah and Human Etymology,” in which he makes a startling claim:

As traditions of the universal flood spread around the world with the post-Ararat migrations, the venerable name of Noah traveled with them.

Manu being saved from the deluge

The fish avatar of Vishnu saves Manu and the Seven Sages during the deluge. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Sage goes on to make connections between the name Noah and various versions of that name in Sanskrit, Latin, Lithuanian, ancient Egyptian and Sumerian, Gothic, and even African and East Asian languages.

I admit I was skeptical at first. Sage seems to base a number of his assertions on apparent cognates among the various languages — cognates being two or more words having a common etymological origin. The problem is that similarity between two words in different languages does not in itself prove a common origin — false cognates are a possibility. So the similarity among the names Manu in Sanskrit, Menes in Egyptian, and Minos in Greek does not prove that they all originally referred to the same person.

However, some investigation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) reveals that Sage’s assertions have more going for them than I originally thought.

In discussing the Sanskrit name Manu, Sage writes:

Manu was the name of the flood hero in the traditions of India. He, like Noah, is said to have built an ark in which eight people were saved. It is highly probable that Noah and Manu were thus the same individual. “Ma” is an ancient word for “water,” so that Manu could mean “Noah of the waters.”

… In Sanskrit, the name Manu appropriately came to mean “man” or “mankind” (since Manu, or Noah, was the father of all post-flood mankind).

This claim is generally in line with what the OED says in its Manu entry:

Etymology:  < Sanskrit Manu progenitor of mankind (also used with metaphorical implication ‘mankind’; derivatives meaning ‘offspring of Manu’ are used for ‘man, human being’), cognate with man n.1 Compare manvantara n.

Note in that entry that the OED lists Manu as a cognate to the English word man. The OED entry on man discusses extensively the Indo-European derivation of the word man, specifically connecting it to the Sanskrit manu, Sanskrit also being part of the (hypothetical, really) Indo-European language family.

In Hindu mythology, the story of Manu does carry some striking similarities to that of Noah. The Encyclopedia Britannica relates the story thus:

In the story of the great flood, Manu combines the characteristics of the Hebrew Bible figures of Noah, who preserved life from extinction in a great flood, and Adam, the first man. The Shatapatha Brahmana recounts how he was warned by a fish, to whom he had done a kindness, that a flood would destroy the whole of humanity. He therefore built a boat, as the fish advised. When the flood came, he tied this boat to the fish’s horn and was safely steered to a resting place on a mountaintop. When the flood receded, Manu, the sole human survivor, performed a sacrifice, pouring oblations of butter and sour milk into the waters. After a year there was born from the waters a woman who announced herself as “the daughter of Manu.” These two then became the ancestors of a new human race to replenish the earth. In the Mahabharata (“Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty”), the fish is identified with the god Brahma, while in the Puranas (“Ancient Lore”) it is Matsya, the fish incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

In the Hebrew Bible, Noah’s name “No-ach” probably means something like “rest” or “consolation.” As you might know, I’m working on a fiction series called “Edhai,” which is set in ancient times and touches on Bible history. The story begins during the pre-flood period, so I’m interested in the character of Noah. In the Edhai series, the main characters are entirely fictional, and real Bible characters such as Noah only appear briefly if at all. However, knowledge of their life and times is vital to the story line.

I plan to release the first episode in the Edhai series in the very near future. If you’re interested in hearing about that release — or in following my research as I work on the series — of if you just want to keep in touch, please sign up to receive my email updates by following this link.

ARK — 24 September 2014

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Robert Pershing Wadlow. via Wikimedia.

Robert Pershing Wadlow. via Wikimedia.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post showing that some popular photos of giant skeletons were faked — see “Have Archaeologists Found Skeletons of Biblical Giants in Greece?

However, in that post I didn’t say much about whether giant humans could in fact have existed at one time. The “giant skeletons” article has been viewed tens of thousands of times and has received many comments from people who seem to take it personally that I exposed these photos as faked. Many took it that I was contradicting the Bible account in Genesis, which they believe speaks of a time when giant humans walked the earth.

I should point out that very large people have been known even in modern times. The American Robert Pershing Wadlow lived from 1918 to 1940. Wadlow reached 8 feet 11.1 inches (2.72 meters) and 492 pounds (223 kg). So it doesn’t seem impossible to suppose that a human could reach a height of 10 feet or so.

About giants in the Bible: According to 1 Sam. 17:4, the Philistine giant Goliath was six cubits and a span, about 9 ½ feet tall (2.9 meters). That’s not too much larger than Wadlow. Pre-flood creatures described at Gen. 6:1,2,4 are sometimes called “giants,” but the actual word used there is nefilim, meaning “fellers” in Hebrew, or those who cause others to fall down by striking them. The Bible doesn’t say how big they were.

giants6smallIf you look at the first faked photo I show in the “giant skeletons” post, you will see that it shows a skull appearing to be about five feet high (or 60 inches). If you figure that a normal human skull is about seven inches high, the skull in the faked photo would have to represent a human about 50 feet tall.

Could a human exist at a height of 40 feet, 50 feet, or more? It’s an interesting question, but it has been explored by competent researchers.

In 1928, geneticist J.B.S. Haldane wrote a well-known essay called “On Being the Right Size,” in which he wrote that “it is easy to show that a hare could not be as large as a hippopotamus, or a whale as small as a herring. For every type of animal there is a most convenient size, and a large change in size inevitably carries with it a change of form.” Haldane gives an extensive discussion of the relationship between size and function in living things, but he also addresses the problem of a giant human by supposing a human were the size of the giants Pope and Pagan in the version of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress that he, Haldane, had when he was a child. He shows what engineering problems would result from being so large:

Let us take the most obvious of possible cases, and consider a giant man sixty feet high — about the height of Giant Pope and Giant Pagan in the illustrated Pilgrim’s Progress of my childhood. These monsters were not only ten times as high as Christian, but ten times as wide and ten times as thick, so that their total weight was a thousand times his, or about eighty to ninety tons. Unfortunately the cross sections of their bones were only a hundred times those of Christian, so that every square inch of giant bone had to support ten times the weight borne by a square inch of human bone. As the human thigh-bone breaks under about ten times the human weight, Pope and Pagan would have broken their thighs every time they took a step.

Such problems are solved in nature by what we might call “right-sizing.” Haldane offers the example of the gazelle:

To turn to zoology, suppose that a gazelle, a graceful little creature with long thin legs, is to become large, it will break its bones unless it does one of two things. It may make its legs short and thick, like the rhinoceros, so that every pound of weight has still about the same area of bone to support it. Or it can compress its body and stretch out its legs obliquely to gain stability, like the giraffe. I mention these two beasts because they happen to belong to the same order as the gazelle, and both are quite successful mechanically, being remarkably fast runners.

Movie poster by Reynold Brown via Wikimedia.

Movie poster by Reynold Brown via Wikimedia.

Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope goes into greater detail about the structural problems of being a 50-foot-tall human in his post “Could an attacking 50-foot woman actually exist?” The reference here is to the science fiction movie Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

Adams explains that, according to the Principle of Similitude, “women, men, and critters in general can only get so big,” because “strength increases with the square of height while bulk increases with the cube.” So if an animal were to get taller while keeping the same proportions, it would get too weak to support its weight: “doubling the size of an animal while keeping its proportions the same increases the cross-sectional area of its muscles and bones by a factor of four while increasing its weight by a factor of eight.” Consequently, “if a woman starts off at five feet and 100 pounds and then grows to 50 feet, she’ll have 100 times the bone and muscle area but weigh 1,000 times as much — 50 tons.”

Adams also explains that a human of that size would run into insurmountable problems with its cardiovascular system, among other difficulties.

Given the engineering obstacles around human gigantism, I suggest that we all be satisfied with imagining giants of more modest size. After all, a nine-foot-tall guy would be pretty impressive, no?

ARK — 6 Nov. 2013

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