Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

The Persian Period and the Origins of Israel: Beyond the "Myths"

The Persian Period and the Origins of Israel: Beyond the "Myths"

Essay from Hess, Richard, G. A. Klingbeil, and P. J. Ray Jr. Eds. Critical Issues From Israelite History. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008

By Efraín Velázquez II
Universidad Adventista de las Antillas, Puerto Rico
July 2009


The issues of settlement and the origin of Israel are commonly associated with the Late Bronze and Iron Ages. These periods have been considered the loci of the early biblical materials. However, more recently, these assumptions about the origin of the biblical texts and even the factuality of the events presented in them have been questioned. The discussion of the origins of Israel is now focused on the Persian period. Whereas this newer emphasis is somewhat strained and tends to repeat some of the unfortunate mistakes made by earlier interpreters, the debate over Israel in the Persian period nevertheless illuminates the discussion of Israel’s origin in earlier periods.


During most of last century, if a group of scholars was invited to a conference on issues regarding the origins of Israel, all the papers would have had their chronological focus solely on the Late Bronze and Iron Ages.1 The consensus was that the important chapters of Israel’s history took place during those periods (Albright 1935, 1939; Wright 1952; Bright 1981). The terminus a quo for Israel, as a political entity, was a violent conquest and massive settlement of Israelites in the southern Levant during the 15th or 13th century b.c.e. However, the trend in the last decade has been to focus on the Persian period for the origin of Israel.2 The earlier assumption that Israel emerged as a social entity before the 6th century b.c.e. has been labeled a “myth.”3

Moreover, in many circles today, a conference on issues in early Israelite history will only feature papers on the Persian and Hellenistic periods. This essay evaluates arguments that sustain the consensus among some scholars that the Persian period might be the locus of the origin of Israel. Some might ask, have most of the papers of this conference missed the mark? Are we looking to the wrong period for the origins of Israel? The term myth, used in current debates about the emergence of Israel, is loaded with rhetorical nuances.4 In the context of this essay, myths are not biblical stories or biblical history. Here, the term myth is used loosely for any reconstruction that cannot be sustained by archaeological and/or textual data. Thompson (1992a) and Barstad (1996) argue that scholars who support an early date for the origin of Israel (the so-called maximalists) are perpetuating a “myth of Israel” and the “mythical past” of the Hebrew Bible. On the other hand, Oded (2003: 55–56) calls the so-called minimalists “mythographers,” because they propose that the origin of Israel should be dated to late periods (that is, Persian or Hellenistic periods). I do not wish to engage in a diatribe that would not advance the study on the origins of Israel. Name-calling and rhetorical outbursts have done much harm and do not promote progress in this discussion. Much of today’s literature is reactionary and does not advance our understanding. However, the dynamics of engaging a subject from different perspectives can be fruitful and the colorful language of these discussions generates interest. I will first present the background of the current debate regarding the origin of Israel and the methodological implications of the positions that have been proposed.

Early Myths Challenged

The picture of hordes of Israelites sweeping over the Canaanite hill country and burning all the cities in their path does not correlate well with archaeological or textual evidence. Some readers of the Hebrew Bible have invoked the “assured results” of archaeology to support their views of the devastating conquest of Canaan at the hands of the Israelites. However, these types of historical reconstructions have not stood up to the rigorous examination of archaeological data. The failure to be consistent in terms of current research has raised strong skepticism regarding the historical value of the Hebrew Scriptures. Carter and Meyers (1996: 3) have noted:

A generation ago, biblical scholars spoke confidently of the “assured results of biblical studies.” These positions were given sacrosanct status, taken for granted as the foundation for all subsequent study of scripture. Recently, however, many of these consensuses have come under close scrutiny, so that what was once considered “assured” is now often questioned as a legitimate “result.”

Some of the “assured results” of archaeology used to “prove” the reconstruction known as the “conquest” were based on incorrect interpretations of the text and limited archaeological data (Albright 1935, 1939; Wright 1952; Bright 1981). A myth was imposed on biblical history, according to my definition of the term. On the other hand, Zevit (2002a: 36) has emphasized that “earlier generations of scholars are not to be faulted for trying their best.” The questions that they posed to the data were different, and they had limited information available.5 Nevertheless, in the context of this essay, historical reconstructions that use questionable methodology are called “myths.” The “conquest model” proposed by Albright cannot be supported by modern scholars. Whereas the contributions of this model should be acknowledged, as Merling (1997b: 59–62) has shown, the Albrightean model is questionable on archaeological and textual grounds. Younger (1999: 200–201) has also observed that “the only apparent consensus [today] is that the Albrightean conquest model is invalidated.” Most scholars now distance themselves from the mythical conquest model and the “prove the Bible” methodology.6 Another myth that was shared by many scholars was the notion that a group of Judahites came to the Judean hill country in the 6th century b.c.e. to an empty land to settle and begin a new Israel. This “new” exodus and conquest is known as the “restoration” and was supposed to have support in the archaeological record. Nelson Glueck (1934; 1935; 1939) suggested that after the Babylonian invasions7 of the southern Levant, there was an occupational gap in the area. Glueck’s mistaken conclusions were perpetuated in scholarship during the rest of the 20th century (see Alt 1940; Noth 1960). However, archaeological research during the last few decades in both Cisjordan and Trans- jordan has lead to a reappraisal of the 6th-century b.c.e. destructions and the “gap” theory (see Pratico 1985: 26). There were people in the southern Levant in the 6th century b.c.e., even after the Neo-Babylonian destructions. The “restoration” model that requires an empty land is a myth. Again, particular interpretations of some biblical texts and archaeological data have led to wrong conclusions.

Myths and Methods

Any valid historical reconstruction of the origins of Israel requires a correlation between the interpretation of the biblical texts and the material culture. The traditional conquest and restoration models and their reconstructions of the origins of Israel emphasized the validation of a specific interpretation of the biblical accounts with archaeological results. The integrity of the text was based on external evidence. Because the settlement data did not “prove” that millions of Israelites burned Canaanite cities in the 15th or 13th centuries b.c.e. or that Judahites came to a deserted hill country, the biblical histories were labeled as mythical.

In the middle of the last century, more “objectivity” was placed on archaeology than on textual studies. The methodology was simple: if an archaeological discovery pointed in a different direction than a particular reconstruction of biblical history, then the biblical text must be wrong. Most of the time, the main problem was not with the biblical text but rather with the reconstruction of biblical history. The result of this methodology was that both the biblical text and the historical reconstruction were considered myths.

Several scholars have pointed out the methodological flaws of earlier historical reconstructions of the origins of Israel. Dever’s stinging criticism portrays biblical archaeology as “based on supposed ‘facts’ that turned out to be hearsay rather than evidence.” He continues: “It is no wonder, then, that reconstructions based on archeology are greeted today with about as much skepticism as are the past generation’s ‘assured results of biblical criticism’” (1983: 577).8 Davies’s (2000: 27) observations are similar to Dever’s, because he notes: “Asserting that the Israel of the Bible and that of history were essentially the same, it shackled Biblical Israel to the discipline of archaeology and left the Bible vulnerable to the charge of being worthless if it was not historically reliable.” He adds: “if the archaeological sub-structure fell, so would the theology.” Even though Dever and Davies consider their views to be widely divergent, their conclusions are similar: the historical value of the Bible is minimized and it is left with little theological importance.

The criticism of naive readings of the Hebrew Bible has motivated more serious studies of biblical material. The methodological problems of earlier reconstructions must be avoided and their conclusions should not be perpetuated in scholarly or even popular literature. The incorrect conquest and restoration models must be rejected as myths. Regardless of the overtones of revis ing earlier conclusions, one must recognize the value of scholarly discussion. However, a “crisis” (Childs 1970; see also Lemche 2000; Long 2002a) has been declared in biblical studies, with a “myth hunt” in full season.

The Myth Hunt

In today’s myth hunt, there are no more consensuses among most scholars regarding the patriarchal narratives, the exodus, the conquest, the monarchy, the Exile, or the return (cf. Garbini 1994; Person 1993; Van Seters 1992). The problem has been that, beyond healthy scholarly discussion, hypercritical approaches to the Bible have made it almost impossible to search for the origins of Israel. Oded (2003: 55) notes that for the so-called minimalist scholars, the Hebrew Bible is “a piece of propagandistic material for political and religious ends.” Oded (2003: 55–56) describes how the authors of the Hebrew Bible are perceived:

Jews during the Hellenistic period invented a series of myths, a myth of Origins, a myth of the Patriarchs, a myth of the Promised Land, a myth of the Pollution of the Land by the Canaanites, a myth of the Conquest and Judges, a myth of the United Monarchy, a myth of Exile and Return, a myth of Ezra, a Myth of the Empty Land—myth, myth, myth, “which stretches now from Genesis to 2 Kings (at least)” (Carroll 1991: 84).9

Some of the arguments that were used to “disprove” the early origins of Israel have been recycled to label the destruction by the Babylonians and the resto ration of the Judahites a myth. What are the implications of this methodology in terms of the history of the 6th and 5th centuries b.c.e. in the Judean high-lands? The discussion of Persian period remains in Judea illuminates Israel’s origins in earlier periods.

The revision of biblical history described above seeks to demonstrate that the Persian period is when the Hebrew Bible was composed.10 The late 6th century b.c.e. has become the main locus of the origin of Israel. This trend in current scholarship has revived the emphasis of the study of Achaemenid times. As mentioned earlier, the current assumption is that someone who wants to discuss the origins of Israel should not be studying the Late Bronze and Iron Ages but must focus on the Persian and Hellenistic periods. Davies (2002: 2) argues that in the Persian period lies “the foundations of Second Temple Judean society” and that “many of those engaged in studies of the Second Temple period indeed regard it as the true ‘biblical period’” (emphasis in the original). He bases his statement “on the grounds that there is to be found the social context in which all the scriptural books achieved their biblical form and when the majority were in fact composed, even if in many cases from some (inaccessible) earlier source materials” (Davies 2002: 2).11 Knoppers (2001: 15) does not share all the views of Davies but notes that “the Persian and Early Hellenistic periods have received significant attention in recent years as formative eras, if not the formative era, in the composition, editing and exegesis of various Hebrew scriptures” (emphasis added).

There are current approaches that are hostile, such as Grabbe’s and Haak’s (2001: 91), that consider the Hebrew Bible to be pure propaganda for the cause of Judaism. They caricature scholars who “embrace” and “extend” the “propaganda of the text” as being capable of wild speculation to the point that in the near future someone might suggest that “Cyrus is discovered to be a Benjaminite; Darius a worshiper of Yhwh; and Xerxes, circumcised on the eighth day.”12 Nevertheless, scholars should not reject Persian period studies. Rather, they should recognize that it was a formative era for the Hebrew Scriptures. More studies on the origin of Israel should take seriously the dynamics of 6th- century b.c.e. Yehud.13 However, there is no evidence to point to the 6th century b.c.e. as the origin of all the biblical material. While modern scholars should indeed pay more attention to the Persian period14 and what went on in the Judean highlands during the 6th and 5th centuries b.c.e., we should avoid the myth hunts and the tendency to sustain absolutistic presuppositions either against or in favor of the Hebrew Bible. Ideology was precisely what created earlier myths about the origin of Israel and is the driving force behind the newer myths in current scholarship.

To Myth or Not to Myth?

Is the Persian-period origin of the Hebrew Scriptures also a myth? To myth or not to myth?—one should be able to identify what constitutes a myth. The classification of a myth as any reconstruction that overwrites archaeological and/or textual material is still valid. One of the reasons to classify Albright’s conquest and Glueck’s restoration models as myths is the lack of “expected” evidence of Hebrew presence in the settlements of the 13th and the 6th cen turies b.c.e. It was expected that the influx of Israelites or Judahites would demarcate new periods. These assumptions are reflected in some earlier chronologies that label the end of the Late Bronze Age the “Israelite” period and the end of the Iron Age the “Jewish period.” How should one differentiate historical periods? Younker (2003b: 367) notes that two bases can be used to differentiate archaeological periods: a clear physical demarcation in the archaeological remains or “a major historical event that lead to a significant sociopolitical change” (on historical periodization, see Croce 1921: 112–16; Morris 1997: 96– 131; Ritter 1985: 313–19). Historical events are known from textual sources. Most researchers use historical events for periodization, as there is seldom a convergence of historical events and changes in material culture. Some periods from the Achaemenid and Hellenistic periods use the term yhd or yhwd for this political entity. The territory of Yehud in the Persian period was smaller than the former kingdom of Judah, but the precise limits are still under discussion (see Lipschits 2005: 154, 183) reflect physical change in the archaeological record but are due to factors not directly related to a major political event.15 Ceramic typology is one of the main sources used in archaeology for dating occupational levels. Pottery is the most important datum to date nonliterary societies and places where there is sparse epigraphical data. Are there enough physical demarcations to mark a different period at the end of the Late Bronze Age?

Ceramic Typology and Mythology

Many arguments in the debate over the mythical nature of the biblical accounts regarding the Late Bronze Age origins of Israel and the later postexilic period are based on ceramic typology. At most ancient sites, ceramic remains are the most ubiquitous artifacts. They have been used both as ethnic markers and to differentiate archaeological periods. If Israel originated in the Late Bronze Age, some would expect a change on the ceramic horizon. This as sumes that peoples can be simplistically identified by their ceramics. However, the correlation between pots and people is complex. Kletter’s (1999: 21) ethnoarchaeological study warns that “sometimes there is no correlation between pottery distribution and conquests or immigrations.” He suggests: “different social groups are known to have lived together and to use the same pottery, though their script and language remained separate.” Ceramic continuity does not offer a final solution regarding the origins of Israel.

Some have emphasized the similarities of the Iron Age and the Late Bronze Age ceramic horizons. Edelman (2002: 44) suggests that there is a “direct continuation of the Late Bronze ‘Canaanite’ ceramic tradition.” This assessment does not account for the change in composition and styles of Iron Age pottery.16 Moreover, even if there is some ceramic continuity, it does not mean that the population was homogeneous.17 It should be taken into account that pottery making is a specialized industry, and itinerant potters must have traveled among different people groups.

The most noted change in the Iron Age ceramic repertoire is the use of the collared-rim jars. The collared-rim storage jars found in the Cisjordanian high- lands have been labeled as characteristically Israelite (Aharoni 1970b). On the other hand, their presence at sites such as Aphek, Tel Mevorakh, Tel Zeror, Tell Qasile, and ºAfula and Sahab, outside the traditionally accepted Israelite regions, has caused this assumption to be questioned. More than an ethnic marker, collared-rim jars seem to indicate a regional use, because they were mostly used in the hill country and are not common in the south (Negev) or north in Galilee; slightly different storage jars appear in these areas. Because there is no textual or iconographical connection of the jars with any particular ethnic group, the relationship between collared-rim jars and Israelites remains uncertain. The origins of Israel in the southern Levant during the Late Bronze Age cannot be proven or denied based on pots. Nevertheless, the presence of an entity called “Israel” in an early period is also corroborated by the mention of Israel on the Merneptah stele and the representations at Karnak.18 On the other hand, in terms of creating mythology with ceramic typology, one could use ceramic continuity to champion the idea that Israel could not have originated in the Persian period because there is not sufficient evidence of change in the ceramic repertoire of the 6th or 5th centuries b.c.e. The Iron Age material culture continued virtually unchanged through the NeoBabylonian and well into the Persian period.19 The pottery forms from the Iron Age II continued into the Persian period in parts of Cisjordan (Barkay 1993: 106–9) and Transjordan (Hendrix, Drey, and Storfjell 1997: 1; Herr 1995: 619, 1999a: 234; Ray 2006: 76). This continuity is the main reason for the common use of the designation “Iron II/Persian” in reading pottery from the 6th and 5th centuries b.c.e.20 There is change in the Levantine material culture, but it is mainly in the coastal cities, with different ceramic repertoires and various iconographical innovations. The Phoenicians incorporated cultural elements of the West, Egypt, and to a lesser degree Mesopotamia. However, these changes are not evident in the material culture of the Yehudite highlands. The ceramic traditions changed slowly in Yehud, and there is a paucity of Western iconographical representations in Yahwistic contexts.

So, is ceramic typology enough to determine the origins of Israel in the Late Bronze Age or the Persian period? One should be careful not to be reductionistic with ethnic labels and models. Sometimes different pottery traditions on the ceramic horizon can be correlated with new peoples and/or sustenance strategies (see above). However, ceramic continuity does not exclude changes in the population. The complexity of pottery typology should temper quick conclusions about what is a myth or reality. Some pretend that it is indispensable to find a ceramic shibboleth before associating pots with people. On the other hand, others simply accept certain features in ceramics as evidence of ethnicity. One should complement the studies on ceramics and material culture with historical sources that delineate polities.21 Kletter (1999: 27) admits that “it is impossible to rely solely on archaeological evidence without the help of historical sources.” One must recognize the value of ancient Near Eastern documents (including the Hebrew Bible). However, before referring to these documents, let us explore one of the most common “myth detectors” used in current studies.

The Myth Detectors

Surveys have been vested with the capability of being myth detectors. One must recognize the advancement achieved in surveys.22 Surveys are very useful in analyzing settlement patterns, regional studies, and one-period sites, among other contributions from their results.23 However, regardless of the contributions from these studies, conclusions from surveys must be handled carefully. Klingbeil (2003a) has documented some pitfalls of survey methodology. He points out the lack of transparency of the different methodologies used in surveys. Conclusions from the surveys of Glueck participated in cementing the misunderstandings about the origins of the Israelite presence in Canaan and about the postexilic period (see above).

Surveys are the heart of demographic reconstructions and have taken an important place in the discussions about the origins of Israel. Lipschits (2003: 324–25) notes that “most scholars base the population estimate on a combination of excavations and survey finds in a given region from a specified period, from which they tried to establish an estimate of total settled dunams.” However, he admits that these reconstructions are largely “speculative” (2003: 325). Most of the sites surveyed have not been excavated and the difference in methods of surveying areas make them difficult to correlate. Lipschits (2003: 325 n. 4) adds that the “figures are based on the general impression of the surveyors.” There are variables that are not included in survey reports. “The lack of uniformity in the survey data is partially the result of differences in the type of area surveyed.” He recognizes the “serious methodological problems” of the results of surveys but points out that “the main problem is the different world views of the surveyors.” He admits that “there is no way to arrive at precise estimates of the area of most types of sites” and that researchers must “be aware that such estimates contain elements of speculation” (Lipschits 2003: 325 n. 4). The value of surveys for archaeological studies should not be underestimated; there are valuable contributions made by surveys. Many sites have not been dug, with little possibility of digging them in the near future. However, surveys are not infallible myth detectors. Instead of detecting myths, some scholars have used them to breed a new generation of myths regarding the origins of Israel. One must be aware of these potential problems in relative demographical studies. Evidently, textual material should supplement material culture when it is available.24 This is consistent with Younker’s (2003b: 367) suggestion that historical events are very relevant for periodization.

In studies on the Persian period origins of Israel, surveys have been used to reconstruct demographic estimates (see Hoglund 1992; Carter 1999a; Lipschits 2003). These estimates have been vested with the power of determining historical reconstructions.25 Is the Persian period the locus of the origin of Israel? This conclusion correlates with the recent claims that the real locus of biblical history is the Persian period. The first question to be answered in considering this possibility is whether there was any population in the Judean highlands during the Persian period from which an “Israel” could have originated.

The Myth of the “Empty Land”

Were the Judean highlands desolated after the Babylonian destructions? No. Neither the archaeological data nor the biblical text support an “empty land.”

Barstad (2003: 3) affirms that “the majority of scholars today do not really believe that life in Judah ceased to exist during the ‘exilic period.’”26 Years ago, the concepts of the “exile,” an “empty land,” or the “return” were questioned on textual grounds.27 However, recent revisions of biblical history have included historical reflections and some arguments based on archaeology that question the “postexilic” period.28 In the recent debate, scholars who support the catastrophic nature of the Babylonian invasions are labeled “myth holders.” There are textual witnesses in the Hebrew and Babylonian corpora that attest to the critical historical events that marked the 6th century b.c.e. (see Zadok 1979; 2002; 2003). However, the devastation of Judean territory during the 6th century b.c.e. is not synonymous with Barstad’s “myth of the empty land.” Decades ago, Bright (1981: 324) had already denounced the “popular notion of a total deportation which left the land empty and void.” He observed that this assessment was “erroneous and to be discarded.” Even if Bright over emphasized destruction and annihilation, almost an “empty land,” he was basing his historical reconstruction on a particular interpretation of the biblical text and the archaeological data.29 The data on settlement in the Babylonian and Persian periods is elusive due to the cultural continuity (mentioned earlier). The evidence for destruction of Judean sites has been as controversial as the Late Bronze Age sites in connection with the early origins of Israel. The results of the excavations of Jerusalem by Kenyon (1962; 1963; 1964a; 1964b; 1965a; 1965b; 1966a; 1966b; 1967a; 1967b; 1968a; 1968b; 1970; 1974) were interpreted as supporting the continuity of the habitation of Jerusalem in the 6th century b.c.e. Kenyon proposed that Jerusalem was not completely destroyed by the Babylonians. Barkay and Kloner (1986; cf. Barkay 2000) followed Kenyon in arguing that upper-class families were living in Jerusalem during the Neo-Babylonian period.30 Barstad (2003: 8, 14) has used these results to sustain his claims that life continued as usual after the Babylonian conquest.

However, these interpretations have been disputed on archaeological grounds. Lipschits (2003: 328) has presented a comprehensive overview of the excavations in Jerusalem and observes that “a clear picture emerges of the Babylonian destruction in all the different parts of the city.”31 Carter (2003) has also challenged Barstad’s conclusions.32 Geva (1993: 717), in his report of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian period strata from Jerusalem, argues that the description of desolation in 2 Kings corresponds to the archaeological finds.33 Nevertheless, the textual issues are more complex than what Geva presents and are outside the scope of this study.34

The archaeological record indicates that there was destruction in the city of Jerusalem, but this is not the same as a complete desolation of the land of Judah (see Lipschits 2006: 23–24). People continued to use their ancestral graves, as is evidenced in the tombs at Ketef Hinom. Perhaps there was some settlement next to the ruins of Jerusalem during the Neo-Babylonian period (as suggested by Barkay 2000), and sites in Benjamin continued to flourish and prosper. There were areas that were not even disturbed by the Babylonians (Carter 2003: 307–10; Stern 2001: 321).

Thus, there is no evidence that there was an “empty land” or massive return of Judahites that formed a “new” Israel in the southern Levant. Nor is there evidence that the inhabitants of the Judean highlands fabricated their origins in the 6th century b.c.e.

Beyond the “Myths”

It is time to move beyond the myths, especially when analyzing the origins of Israel. The myth that archaeology and biblical studies must remain apart must be buried. Recently, Rast (2003: 48) has noted that there is a “consensus that biblical texts and archaeology are discrete areas of investigation.” However, even some of the most recalcitrant advocates of this separation have recognized the problems of isolating the disciplines.35 The study of the origins of Israel must integrate archaeological and textual disciplines.

An understanding of the interaction between the Hebrew Bible and ancient artifacts is necessary, as King (1993: xxiii) has emphasized: “In a reconstruction of biblical history, dialogue between ancient Near East texts, principally the Bible, and archaeological evidence has much to contribute.” Dialogue about the interpretation of texts and artifacts is taking place, even if it is in increasingly belligerent tones, as in the debate between so-called minimalists and maximalists, which is loaded with tendentious statements. In the current debate over the Bible as a reliable historical source, it is recognized that “at one end of the spectrum are those who insist that the Bible is literally accurate in all historical details” and at the other end are those who consider it useless as a history of Israel (McNutt 1999: 7). We must foster dialogue between scholars and not participate in a diatribe against the differing conclusions of scholars (see Carter 1999b: 28).

She also examines the Neo-Babylonian period from the perspective of biblical periodization (2003: 75–89). Oded (2003) successfully presents evidence of continuity in the biblical references to the Exile but also the distressful effects of the Babylonian invasions.

The current debate and so-called crisis in historiographical studies has served to mature both disciplines. As long as the debate does not degenerate into isolation and fragmentation, one must continue listening to provocative proposals and maturing solid arguments. On the other hand, accusations such as “myth holders” or “mythographers” do not serve to advance our disciplines. This does not mean that one should not make an effort to eliminate myths. However, in this effort, the methodology for a “myth hunt” must be clarified and the presuppositions presented consistently.

In analyzing the origins of Israel, one should move beyond models that do not take into account both textual and archaeological sources. The presuppositions of researchers are always present in the methodology chosen to study Israel and reflected in the conclusions of any study. One should be careful not to give preferential treatment of one type of evidence over another. Some readers of the Hebrew Bible have interpreted the biblical narratives naively, using archaeological data selectively to support textual claims. It is time to be more careful in the interpretation of texts and tells.

On the other hand, recent researchers have had a tendency to “read the [biblical] texts with suspicion, believing that they hide these wider and ultimately more significant, concerns beneath a veneer created by the desire to present the course of events within a familiar and locally acceptable pattern” (Williamson 1999: 241). Regarding the study of the origins of Israel, there are reasons to dispense with a faulty methodology that rejects the biblical text. The sources for the origins of Israel are so scanty that it is intellectual suicide to reject material that could throw light on the subject. Williamson (1999: 241) states that “it is churlish to ignore or undervalue any potential source material of any kind.” One must avoid traditional myths and the breeding of new myths.

Is it impossible to be free from myths? Hodder (1986: 155), who has made a contribution with his groundbreaking works of postprocessual archaeology, leaves a pessimistic cloud with his evaluation of archaeology: “The theories are always open to further questions and new perspectives. There is no finishing position since there can never be any way of evaluating whether the ‘right’ interpretation has been arrived at.” We disagree and propose that a “right” interpretation can be achieved through consistency. Researchers must be consistent in their presuppositions, methodology, and conclusions. This is the only way to study the origins of Israel beyond the myths.

If one uses a methodology that takes seriously the results of archaeological work and the content of textual data, one must conclude that the conquest model promoted by Albright is, in fact, a myth. However, this is not to say that the origins of Israel did not occur in the Late Bronze or Iron Ages. An early origin of Israel is not bound to Albright’s model. The biblical narratives on the conquest are not the same as Albright’s conquest model (Merling

1997b). The book of Judges emphasizes that the conquest was more a process than an event.

At the end of the Late Bronze Age, there were major changes in Canaan, as is reflected in archaeological and textual records. Historical changes and periodization should be evaluated in the light of textual material that describes these events. The data from ceramics and surveys must be used along with the available textual materials to develop a historical reconstruction. This applies to the study of the Late Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the Persian period, or any other time.

The notion that thousands of Judahites came to the Judean hill country to have a new beginning in an empty land during the Persian period is also a myth. Nevertheless, there is evidence of major destructions in Jerusalem and its environs at the end of Iron Age II. The Iron Age kingdom of Judah came to an end in the 6th century b.c.e. The Solomonic temple was razed to the ground and the Judahites were scarred forever by the Babylonian invasions. Transi tional forms in pottery emerged during the 5th century b.c.e., even though there was still much continuity in the ceramic traditions.

Yahwism after the Exile experienced discontinuity of iconographic practices and matured as it consolidated its sacred literature.36 Stern (2001: 29) insists that “upon the return from exile, the Jews purified their worship. Jewish monotheism was at last consolidated.” This assumes that there were no iconographic representations of Yahweh after the Babylonian deportation. The archaeological and textual evidence supports pentateuchal Yahwism as the official, normative religion that was practiced by the majority, even though there are some iconographic representations from the Persian period that require more detailed discussion. The Persian period seems to be the time when the prohibition on representation of Yahweh was particularly widespread. Pentateuchal Yahwism thrived and became the norm that would be followed by the world’s major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Israel did not originate in the Persian period. The arguments used to sustain this position are not convincing and can be labeled myths. However, normative Judaism took shape during Achaemenid times. The study of the Persian period should focus on the traditions of the tribal past that the Yehudites preserved as their origins. Nevertheless, we should be aware of the ideological purposes of our traditions and the objectives of our own ideologies. Only then can we go beyond the myths surrounding the origins of Israel.


1. Most of the research of archaeologists and biblical scholars in the last century has been focused on the Late Bronze to Iron II Ages (1550–587 b.c.e.).

2. The definition of “Israel” is a matter of debate in scholarly circles. Some scholars differentiate sharply between the ancient “reality” of who the Israelites were, the ideology preserved by the biblical writers, and modern perceptions of Israel. Davies (as noted by Dever 2002: 28) suggests that “biblical” and “ancient” Israel are “mere constructs, invented largely by later Jews and Christians to suit their own theological needs.”

3. This is the conclusion of so-called minimalists such as Davies (1992), Lemche (1998), Thompson (1992a), and Whitelam (1996). Thompson (1999: xvii–xix) provides “recommended reading” by scholars who share his views; see some of their critics: Dever (2001), Provan (1995), and Hoffmeier (1995, 1997).

4. As used here, the term myth has nothing to do with the Greek genre of fictional stories about the gods.

5. It is impossible to assess the motives of scholars who support religious ideologies.

6. The literary/critical objections regarding the readings of the Hebrew Bible that emphasize the violence of Israel’s entrance into Canaan are outside the scope of this study. Also, the harmful effects of fundamentalist uses of archaeology will not be discussed here.

7. After the initial invasion of Judah by the Babylonians in 605–4 b.c.e., the armies of Nebuchadnezzar returned to Jerusalem in 597–96 b.c.e. to frustrate further attempts of sedition. The Babylonians took over the city and deported king Jehoiachin, along with most of the Judahite aristocracy. A decade later, there was a major destruction of the city after a siege of more than a year (587–86 b.c.e.).

8. On the other hand, Long (1999: 161) points out that “today’s assured results may well be tomorrow’s discarded theories, and if there is any lesson to be learned from the ‘biblical archaeology’ debates of the past, it is that we should go slowly in declaring just what archaeology has ‘proved’ or ‘disproved.’”

9. Oded refers to Caroll in his statement. However, it was Freedman (1963; 1976) who pro- posed the title “Primary History” for the books of Genesis through 2 Kings and their view to the exilic period in Babylon.

10. Some scholars admit that there are some early traditions that were finally written in the Persian period but also that other literature of the Hebrew Bible was finished in the Hellenistic period.

11. For Lemche (2000: 12), the Hebrew Scriptures “hardly predate the Greco-Roman period,” while Thompson (1999: xv) speaks about a “Hellenistic Bible.” Carter (1999a: 438–39) notes: “There is a growing sense that the Persian period is the turning point of biblical history. Virtually all scholars place much of the editing and transmission—some will argue, even the origin—of much of the Hebrew Bible in the Persian period. These newer assessments stress the significance of the social and ideological settings within the postexilic community.”

12. Despite all of this colorful rhetoric, recent tablets with Hebrew names have been published by Joannès and Lemaire (1999: 17–34) that come from the period of the first three Achae menid emperors. One of the tablets, dated to the seventh year of Cyrus the Great (532 b.c.e.), refers to a “summoner” named Abda-Yaû. This is “anecdotal evidence that it was possible very early in the Achaemenid era for Jews in Babylonia to rise into official roles” (Vanderhooft 2003: 224). Stolper (1985: 283–305) published a tablet that mentions a certain Gadalâma. This person, whose name is a transcription of the Hebrew Gadalyaw, served the governor of Babylon in 486 b.c.e. as scribe-chancellor. Vanderhooft (2003: 226) cites “numerous parallels for Jewish scribes in the satraps and local administration of the empire.” Grabbe and Haak (2001: 113 n. 35) note that Vanderhooft’s interpretations are “fervid” but fall short of recognizing the speculative nature of his suggestions.

13. The term Yehud refers to the Persian province (539–333 b.c.e.) located in the central part of Palestine, as distinct from the Iron Age kingdom of Judah (930–586 b.c.e.). Epigraphic remains

14. Briant (2002: 4), in his comprehensive study, complains that the Persian period “had been abandoned both by the Assyriologists (for whom the fall of Babylon to Cyrus in 539 long marked the end of history) and by Classicists (who ‘kidnapped’ Near Eastern history as of Alexander’s landing in Asia in 334).” He further notes that the Persian period has been squeezed between Hellenocentrism and Judeocentrism. Even though Briant’s criticism is loaded with rhetorical exaggeration, most scholars recognize that the Persian period has been neglected. Dipping our pen into Briant’s rhetoric, we might accuse some scholars of squeezing out the history of Yehud be tween the Iron Age kingdom of Judah and the Roman Judea. These specialists suppose that history ended when Jerusalem fell in 587 b.c.e. and that the next important historical period began at the birth of Jesus of Nazareth (see Betlyon 2005: 4).

15. Some of the reasons for discontinuity in the material culture could be correlated with climatic changes or different modes of subsistence within one ethnic group. However, most of the time, historical events precede change in the material culture.

16. The changes in the material culture that account for a different period after the Late Bronze Age are outside the scope of this study.

17. The pottery of the sea peoples has been used as a case for ethnic uniqueness reflected in ceramics. There is a degree of validity in this assumption, even though it is impossible to distinguish between Philistines, Shekelesh, Denyen, Weshesh, Sherden, or Teresh based solely on pottery; textual traditions are necessary.

18. The Merneptah stele is considered “the most important text for information about pre-monarchic Israel” (Edelman 2002: 35).

19. In the context of site identification, Bienkowski (2001: 349) has acknowledged that the reason why “many surveys and excavations have identified little or no diagnostic Persian material” is that “there might be an element of continuity from Iron II into the Persian period without much of a definable change in the material culture.” Bienkowski (2001: 351) observes that, due to the problems of identifying material culture from the Persian period, “surveys are unreliable for locating Persian-period settlement.” While his study is in the context of Transjordan, the results are consistent with Cisjordan as well.

20. Bienkowski (2001: 349) acknowledges that the use of the term “Iron II/Persian” does not simply “mask uncertainty”; it is a useful term that should be used in the preliminary reading of pottery. This term reflects the continuity of Iron Age II forms into the Persian period.

21. Four-room houses have been used as an ethnic marker for the Israelites after the conquest. But this interpretation has been questioned because as the roots of the style can be traced to the Late Bronze Age (which is not a problem for the theory of an early conquest). Similar houses outside the traditional Israelite borders have also raised questions (see Edelman 2002: 44–45). In some publications, Finkelstein (1988b: 237–59) has championed the duwwar (Arabic “circle”)- style site layout as a marker of Israelite settlements. He has based his arguments on analogies with Bedouin tent encampments.

22. Klingbeil (2003a) provides a useful bibliography of up-to-date literature regarding surveys in the Levant (see also Levy 1995: 101–4; A. Mazar 1990: 10–14, 28).

23. For example, Beit-Arieh 1974, 1981a, 1981b; Gophna and Ayalon 1980; Gophna and Beck 1981; Ben-Tor and Rosenthal 1978; Ben-Tor 1979; Ben-Tor, Portugali, and Avissar 1979, 1981.

24. Van der Steen (2002a: 4) warns: “However, both the written sources and the archaeological remains have a tale to tell, about the same period and the same people, so if the two diverge it is our task to explain why they diverge and to find a historical explanation in which both have their role (see Weippert 1967: 133–39). We cannot ignore one or the other because they do not fit in our hypothesis. If that is the case the hypothesis is wrong.”

25. See the conclusions of Barstad (2003) based on Carter (1999a).

26. However, Barstad (2003: n. 1) accuses Vanderhooft (1999: 104–6) and Stern (2001: 303–11) of holding to the “myth of the empty land.”

27. Torrey (1898, 1910) was the first to challenge the traditional understanding of the restoration. His suggestions set the agenda for many scholars with his provocative proposals that denied the factuality of the Babylonian Exile and the Persian period. His bold claims did not gain much attention until recently.

28. Some of the scholars who have echoed Torrey’s suggestions are Barstad (2003), Carroll (1991), Davies (1992), Drinkard (1987), and Grabbe (1992). These scholars agree with many of his suggestions but do not follow all of his conclusions. Drinkard (1987: 389) rehashes Torrey’s contentions against the use of the terms exilic and postexilic. He argues that “exilic” is misleading; it emphasizes the exile of Judahite inhabitants to Babylon as the major factor of the Judahite dispersion. He claims that the term does “not reflect the broad dispersion of the Hebrews during this period to Egypt, Phoenicia, Syria and Ammonite, Moabite and Edomite areas (Jer 40:11).” Drinkard adds that these terms also fail to include the group that remained in the land. He maintains that the focus of the biblical narratives is on the royal family, nobles, priests, and the economically affluent that went to Babylon. His arguments are similar to the arguments of Miller and Hayes (1986: 437), who claim that the Hebrew Scriptures were written in Babylon. They propose that its authors “practically ignore the ongoing life and history of the Judean community that remained in the land and never experienced the exile.”

29. Nevertheless, Bright (1981: 324) emphasized that the Babylonian destruction was “appalling and one which signaled the disruption of Jewish life in Palestine.” He said: “archaeological evidence eloquently testifies that all, or virtually all, of the fortified towns in the Shephelah and the central hill country (i.e., all Judah proper) were razed to the ground, in most cases not to be re- built for many years to come.” However, this description is not completely accurate.

30. He based his conclusions on the finds at the tombs of Ketef Hinom (Barkay 2000). These tombs that have been dated to the Iron Age II based on epigraphical grounds (Barkay and Kloner 1986) were used continuously until the Persian period.

31. Lipschits (2003: 132–34) uses archaeological reports to demonstrate that the city was completely destroyed and emptied (see also Ackroyd 1968: 25–29; Miller and Hayes 1986: 426). For the results of the excavations at the city of David, see Kenyon (1974: 170–71); Shiloh (1984b: 3–22); and Franken and Steiner (1990: 57). For evidence of devastation in the 6th century b.c.e. at the Ophel, see E. Mazar (1991: 139; 1993: 25–32). See also the dramatic finds from the Jewish Quarter (Avigad 1980: 52–54) and the citadel (Geva 1983: 56–58; 1993: 717–18).

32. Carter states: “Unlike Hans Barstad, I do not think that ‘life went on pretty much as usual’” (2003: 311), though Barstad (2003: 6) has claimed that the studies of Carter support his position. Barstad (2003: 6) also claims that the studies of Lipschits support his views, but Lipschits denies that they do (personal communication).

33. Geva (1993: 717) explains the small number of deportees reported by Jeremiah, suggesting that “possibly, many Jerusalemites had abandoned the city even before the siege, and many others escaped during the fighting.”

34. On the issue of numbers, Yamauchi (2002: 361) observes that “the biblical references to the numbers that were deported by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar are incomplete and somewhat confusing.” The descriptions provided in Chronicles must be interpreted by understanding the purposes of the descriptions. Oded (2003: 64) observes that “it is quite clear that 2 Chr 36:21 is a Midrash on Lev 26:33–35 and 43 concerning the cessation of cultivation of the soil because of the broken covenant.” Yamauchi (2002: 363) further notes that “the Chronicler (2 Chron 46:17– 20), ignoring the people who remained in the land, gives the impression that all who were not killed were taken into exile in Babylon.” He does not line up with the “mythographers” (coined by Oded 2003: 70) but emphasizes the theological nuances of the Chronicler’s description. Japhet (1997: 363–74) has also pointed out that the Chronicler recognizes Judahites living in Judah and presents how and why the portrayal of Chronicles differs from the portrayal of Kings (2003: 83).

35. In the late 1980s, Carol and Eric Meyers proposed the integration of archaeology into university communities and its separation from seminaries and religious institutions (1989: 143). De- ver (1993c; 1999) also advocated a similar separation, which he later regretted as he watched the discipline “die.”

36. This is not the same as accepting Frei’s (2001; see Frei and Koch 1984) proposal of Reichs autorisation, which implies that the Pentateuch was produced under Persian control during Achaemenid times. I have attempted to respond to this proposal in my unpublished doctoral dissertation (Velázquez 2008).