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Ethnicity




By Philip Davies
Professor Emeritus
University Of Sheffield, England
January 2014


I am not going to discuss ethnicity. Actually I find it a problematic and generally unhelpful concept. It is more straightforward to speak about identity. Ethnicity denotes adherence to a recognizable, distinctive set of customs that cannot be defined by any of the other identity markers. It is sporadic, often elusive and has very little by way of descriptive value in the modern world and its postcolonial, multicultural populations in which the prime markers of identity are nationality, kinship and religion. Geographical indices are also present (geography is a major factor in language, dialect and many social customs), but these are layered into continental, national, regional, local and neighbourhood. Modern identities are complex, but there is hardly any place for ethnicity. I usually meet the term in official documentation where I am expected to recognize my ethnicity as ‘White British’ or ‘Caucasian’ or some other term that denotes practically nothing than physiognomy; and whatever ethnicity is, it is not physiognomy. We have been there, all too recently, and hopefully will never return.

But is there a place for ethnicity in the ancient world? I would confine the usefulness of this category to the world of empires, diasporas and colonies when political identities were no longer allied to local kings and kingdoms, nor social identity bound to places of residence, and even one’s language might not be the one used by one’s parents. Here, ethnicity indicates a distinctive core of cultural values that are usually denominated with reference to a tribe or a country. Traces of such identities persist today in ‘Italian Americans’ or ‘Irish Americans’, and perhaps in ‘Afro-Caribbean’, but only as elements in a hybrid. They are not pure ethnicities.

But before the age of empires? What about Iron age Palestine? What about Israelite ethnicity? What about ‘Israel’, even? Several archaeologists have argued in favour of identifying as ‘Israelite’ a population of hill farmers which appeared in the central highlands of Palestine during the Late Bronze/Iron I transition (indeed, their appearance partly defines this transition). What’s the evidence? It’s not archaeological, strictly: it’s biblical and historical. The Bible describes an ‘Israel’ that entered Palestine (by conquest, not settlement and calculated at a different time, but never mind). For some this is a valid basis for attaching the label ‘Israel’ to anything that suddenly appears in Canaan at an appropriate time. But to be fair, serious archaeologists do not just incorporate bible stories to their interpretation in this crude way. Rather, they base their identification on epigraphic evidence. The ‘Merneptah stele’ very probably names an ‘Israel’ among the pharaoh’s conquests at the time of the Late Bronze/Iron I transition, and, somewhat later, we find a kingdom called, among other names, ‘Israel’ in several inscriptions (the Mesha stele and a few Neo-Assyrian texts). It therefore seems reasonable to draw a thread between these references, and assume the name ‘Israel’ to attach to a particular group though the intervening period. Some degree of credit can now be attached to the biblical record in elaborating the profile of such a group, however exaggerated the description and however implausible the story of this group’s origins and earlier history.

Is there anything wrong with this kind of argumentation? Actually, I don’t think there is any wrong except the word ‘ethnicity’ itself, which is used to define the kind of identity that the name denotes. The problem with ‘ethnicity’ is the term itself, and the problem that it obscures is that of identifying a name with a social entity. That the name ‘Israel’ persists from the LBIV onwards is reasonable. That the name denotes a kingdom with its capital in Samaria is true. It does not follow that the highlands farmers belonged to a kingdom based in Samaria. Well, this is obvious. But what do the two populations have in common? That they share a name may be granted. But do they share an identity that we can define and describe? Does the name ‘Israel’ grant a stable and definable identity? That should not be assumed, simply because we know it is not the case. Even less is it the case when we extend the history further.

To make my point absolutely clear, I’ll tell the story of the old gardener who proudly boasted to his friend that he had used the same spade for forty years. During that time, the blade had been replaced twice and the shaft once. But it was, of course, the same spade, his spade the one he always used. Not unlike ‘our’ Israel, our ‘ancient Israel’.

Let’s look at the history of the spade called Israel. For whatever reason, the hill country (just the northern part at first), becomes an attractive economic option, and people move in, making clearings and terraces. Being hill farmers they do not rear pigs. Maybe they develop a distinctive style of domestic architecture (but we don’t know that the four-roomed house was exclusive to them). Until they become a society (see below) with the stratifications that inevitably develop, they are fairly egalitarian. They learn to cooperate at harvest time; they exchange goods (though they may also have traded with the cities that did not disappear). Nothing to do with ‘ethnicity’. Through economic cooperation and by intermarriage—out of necessity and convenience rather than any cultural preference)—a relatively isolated society would develop some corporate identity through shared customs, memories and habits. The population would become a society with distinctive characteristics. Perhaps they practised circumcision: but so did lots of societies. It’s not an ethnic marker yet.

The society develops into a chiefdom: it acquires leaders, patronage systems, taxation, and learns to defend itself against enemies. Eventually it becomes a kingdom, a state, and it grows in size, territorially and demographically. It includes parts of the Shephelah, the Jezreel plain, Lower Galilee, perhaps parts of Transjordan, and by so doing it incorporates other populations. Indeed, all the ‘Canaanites’ who once lived here have now become ‘Israelites’, because ‘Israelite’ is a political category. Some—most—of the king’s subjects are still farmers, but the character of the society has changed. It is ruled by an urban elite, it has a royal and a state cult, big urban temples, scribes, mercenaries. Pork is not totally unknown. Israel is probably very little different from the other recently-founded kingdoms of Ammon or Moab or Aram or others in Syria. We no longer have ethnic ‘Israelites’ but political ‘Israelites’. Same spade, but a new shaft. And what about Judah? There is no epigraphic evidence, no archaeological evidence, that the territory known as Judah was populated by people that anyone, including the population itself thought of as ‘Israel’—at least, until the end of the kingdom of Israel.

But at some point after this, the name ‘Israel’ splits into to distinct meanings. There remains the self-styled population of ‘Israel’ in a province called Samaria. This population contains numerous people transported by the Assyrians into the province. But there also emerges another ‘Israel’, which has a religious identity and includes the people of Judah as well as those of Samaria. Now the spade has a new blade as well. A few centuries later, the province of Judah manages to win political independence for itself from the Seleucids, and its kings embark on a territorial expansion that achieves two long-lasting effects. First, it endows with the name of ‘Jew’ Samarians, Idumeans and other Palestinians. The name is primarily political (Jews are defined by the borders they inhabit); but it acquires what we might realistically call an ‘ethnic’ dimension: ‘Judaism’ becomes the name of a religion (one that rejects as ‘Samaritans’ the successors of the old political Israel). The trajectory becomes global as the name extends to the Palestinian diaspora (though an ‘Israelite’ or ‘Samarian’ diaspora remains), and Herod the Great becomes an ethnic king: not only ruler of Judah and other territories granted him by Rome, but also king of all those who claim the identity of ‘Jew’ throughout the empire. The name ‘Israel’ now seem primarily to be used by Jews as self-designation: but many of them also acknowledge other ‘Lost’ Israelites: historically their story is that they are the rump of an ancient ‘Israelite’ people, a nation of twelve tribes that went into Egypt, etc. The spade has a new blade, a new shaft and also an additional label ‘Israelite’ can now be replaced by ‘Jew’. One other point: in a predominantly non-circumcising empire, circumcision can now emerge as the mark of a Jew.

Have I made my point? Not only does the meaning of the term ‘Israel’ shift over the centuries, but the people who call themselves ‘Israelite’ all change. There is some biological continuity and some cultural continuity, but not enough of either to insist on a continuous and stable entity called ‘Israel’. It’s all about change.

Since what I have just said is common knowledge among historians, what is the search for an ethnic Israel in Iron I all about? I suspect it serves only our own times, when the issue of a continuous Jewish identity is an essential part of some Zionist claims to legitimate occupation of its land (including its neighbours’ land). Rather like Jerusalem as Israel’s ‘eternal capital (it has never been an Israelite city and under international law isn’t now), the claim of an ‘Israelite’ or ‘Jewish’ people whose essence has been preserved for two millennia is a myth.

What if we extended the history of ‘Israelites’ into the classical, medieval and modern periods? Would we not find ‘Israelites’ (or ‘Jews’ as they were now better known) converting to Christianity and then to Islam? Yes, but only if we insist on population identity. But if we consider that already in the second century CE ‘Jew’ denotes a religious identity (to many outsiders it was a ‘philosophy’), then this argument does not hold. But we cannot have both definitions. The danger with ‘ethnicity’ is that it tries to fudge the distinction, to hold political, racial, and religious definitions all together. It won’t do. This search for an ethnic ‘ancient Israel’ is politics, not history. Or archaeology.





Comments (40)


It would be fascinating to study the parallel ideas (or not)of ethnicity/identity in Homer. Both cultures arguably write legends of origins in the Bronze Age, if one uses their implied dating.
#1 - Edward Mills - 01/16/2014 - 17:13



Dear Philip,

This style of discourse is deceptive and problematic, and, alas, all too typical in the small but vocal group of minimalists. You begin with a perfectly cogent examination of historical and analytical categories. Then you end with a political diatribe labeling anyone who disagrees with your conclusions as perpetuating "Zionist claims." This conclusion is ideological posturing, which substitutes politically charged polemics for rationally warranted assertions.

This style of discourse contributes to the pernicious idea that scholarship is only -- and nothing more than -- political agonistics. I trust we agree that scholarship is more valuable and compelling than such small beer.

Yours,
Ron
#2 - Ron Hendel - 01/16/2014 - 18:47



Perhaps the root of the problem is the assumed continuity between "ethnic" identity labels. Politics, religion and race can all be factors in defining an identity but a person who holds an identity in 2014 may have little or no connection with a person who owned the identity label in the past. I agree that ethnicity is a blunt instrument that is largely meaningless when discussing the historical continuity of many so called modern ethnicities.
#3 - Don Moffat - 01/16/2014 - 19:23



I suppose if you tried to argue the identity of the Jewish population has changed more than the corresponding Palestinian population during the same 2,000 year period you might have an interesting argument. But your idea that people and cultures have changed over 2,000 years is so generic it serves no purpose for any argument.
#4 - Jordan Wilson - 01/16/2014 - 20:08



Jonathan Hall, in his "Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity" (Cambridge, 2000), made a similar argument for the multi-factorial and discursive basis of ethnic identity in ancient Greece. His study is methodologically sophisticated, abounding in hard data and, marvelously, was executed without gratuitous swipes at the contemporary residents of the Balkan Peninsula.

It's a shame he's not more widely read by biblical scholars.

http://books.google.com/books/about/Ethnic_Identity_in_Greek_Antiquity.html?id=F4Am6gcP0GsC
#5 - Ed Silver - 01/16/2014 - 23:44



I am sure that Israelite identity was a fact when an Arab, Omar aka Omri (not me: Noth: Personennamen) was made king of Israel. Maybe "Israel" could say like Isis: I am what was, what is, what will be. Nobody has lifted my veil. Israel was, Israel is, Israel will be, but nobody has found out what Israel is. It is the old thing denounced by Gottwald forty years ago (IOSOT Edinburgh) that biblical scholars opens by assuming what they see as the result of their scholarship is also the starting point for their scholarship.

You are right about political diatribe but some among us (probably not where you live) are very tired of the way our field is handled by Christian and Jewish Zionism. Probably time to do something about it. Philip is even too kind assuming a political use of the name of Israel after 722. The Hashmoneans did not call themselves kings of Israel. They use on coins the expression ḥever Hayehudim.

Niels Peter Lemche
#6 - Niels Peter Lemche - 01/17/2014 - 04:01



As Ron Hendel knows and Davies' explicitly argues, this
issue has long been politicized. I don't think Ron here can fairly describe Philip's irony in this article as a "diatribe".
#7 - Thomas L. Thompson - 01/17/2014 - 05:43



I'd like to reply to all the commenters so far: to Edward Mills that it would indeed be interesting; my own research suggests that Homer uses the word ethos loosely (including a reference to the 'ethnos of the dead'). One could make a case for Greek colonists creating an 'Athenian' (e.g.) identity, though I would think this is not fully ethnic but rather political.

Don Moffat understands precisely what I am saying. Jordan Wilson is also correct. My point is that peoples and cultures change, and that is indeed generic. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate to ask in what sense Palestine is a land historically connected to 'Jews' or to 'Israel' and in what sense 21st century Jews can say that the land was 'theirs' over 2000 years ago.

Ron Hendel is even more predictable than I am. But I am this time disappointed by his uncharacteristic lack of erudition. He is presumably aware of the generally conceded link between Israeli archaeology and the claims of the State of Israel; and also of the fact that the notion of a 'Jewish people' was promoted by secular Zionists who were otherwise unable to lay claim to a biblical heritage in Palestine and instead conceived a continuous claim between the land and the 'people'. Neither of these is a matter of opinion or prejudice. They can and have been documented. I reject Ron's accusation of 'ideological posturing'. Rather, I am suggesting some ideological posturing in the notion of an early ethnicity of Israel. Pointing out ideological posturing is very definitely one of the purposes of scholarship and does not of itself constitute ideological posturing. He really ought to know that! I really am disappointed in him this time.
#8 - philip davies - 01/17/2014 - 07:26



I'm not entirely comfortable with ethnic labels, but there does seem to be a phenomenon that it describes and that people use, even if it is essentially a shorthand for a variety of related "markers".

The article says "Jew" became a religious label by the second century, and I suppose that its primary meaning may well have changed to describe that aspect, but you surely can't be saying that at that point it meant only the religious identity of people labelled "Jewish"? What about the cultural dimensions and customs? Surely "Jewishness" was (and continues to be) an ethnicity (or perhaps many overlapping ethnicities) which would encompass all of these factors, rather than some additional thing not covered by of its aspects.

It seems to me you're really pointing out the problems with assuming continuity of people using the same labels (the same could apply to the label "Christian", for example, as I'm sure you'd agree) and the ways the term "ethnicity" is misused and exploited, but not rebutting ethnicity itself.
#9 - Matt - 01/17/2014 - 10:44



Philip is quite right that Israeli archaeology, biblical scholarship, and Zionist politics have a profound - and often distorting - history. But his conclusion that it was "secular Zionists who ... conceived a continuous claim between the land and the 'people'" is historically absurd. As Philip knows, the Passover Haggadah, a classic example of ethnic self-fashioning, ends with "next year in Jerusalem." Examples are easily multiplied wherein "Israel" as people and land are linked. Philip's conclusions are obviously occluded by his anti-Zionist political polemics. This is a shame, because the study of ethnicity and "imagined communities" in antiquity is rich territory, as several comments have noted.
#10 - Ron Hendel - 01/17/2014 - 13:25



The essay http://www.algemeiner.com/2014/01/16/breaking-unesco-pulls-jewish-exhibit-after-last-minute-protest-from-arab-league/ on this web site illustrates the political use of biblical archaeology.
#11 - Edward Mills - 01/17/2014 - 14:49



Dear Edward,

but you also see from the comments on this article that there are quite a few people around WHO will accept Ron Hendel's argumentation.

It is really time for different stories about Palestine in ancient times as well as more modern.
#12 - Niels Peter Lemche - 01/18/2014 - 03:49



A very nice paper, especially as it problematizes historical knowledge in a critical manner. As NPLemche indicates, it's time for different (and better) histories of ancient Palestine and Davies gives an interesting (and correct, for me) path to follow when dealing with 'Israel'.
#13 - Emanuel Pfoh - 01/18/2014 - 16:20



One source of identity info is self-testimony. In the NT, a generic identity for 1st century c.e. Israel can be found in the Paulines as follows:

(1) Those to whom belong "the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, the promises, the patriarchs, the Messiah" (Rom 9:2-5).
(2) "Jews who rely on the law, receive instruction in the law, and have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth." (Rom 1:17-20). (3)Those who strived for the righteousness based on law" (9:31-32);
(4)Tribal affiliation, e.g., "a member of the tribe of Benjamin," (Rom 11:1, Phil 3:5).
(5) The common practice of circumcision (Galatians, Rom 2:25-29), Phil 3:5).

(6)A "Hebrew born of Hebrews" implies that blood-mixes were not unusual (Phil 3:5). (7) A pharisaic approach to the law implies that there were other approaches (Phil 3:5).

There is no distinction made in these characteristics between Palestine and the diaspora. There is no specific mention Zionist proclivities have any particular value among examples given of obedience to the law.
#14 - Eugene Stecher - 01/18/2014 - 16:55



While I agree wholeheartedly that Zionist AND anti-Zionist politics (and nationalist politics in general) have given us a distorted view of what ethnicity was like in the ancient world, I think Davies' understanding of ethnicity is based on a very specific definition of what the word means--he is taking as his model minority communities in Western countries, and saying that since this is what the term "ethnic" indexes for us today, this is how we should retroactively define it for antiquity. I reject this very modernity-centric explanation, and would refer everyone here to Fredrik Barth's "Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference." Though it was written in 1969, it still remains a standard for understanding ethnicity in anthropology and sociology.

The authors published in this volume recognize that ethnicity is an inherently porous, shifting phenomenon. What defines an ethnic group, at least according to standard anthropological terminology, is two things--groups recognized as distinct by both themselves and others, and the continuous maintenance of the IDEA of the group even if the content that defines it and its population base may change dramatically over time.

Following this definition, it is clear that Israelites/Jews are an ethnic group and have been since antiquity. It is also true that the nature of what it means to "be" a Jew today is radically different from 2000-3000 years ago, indeed, even from 200-300 years ago; much of this more recent shift in identity can be attributed to Zionism, but not all of it--the secularization and emancipation of the Ashkenazim after the Enlightenment, the trauma of the Holocaust, the alternative, anti-Zionist nationalistic vision of the East European socialist Bund (with its notion of "Yiddishkeit"), and the transformation of the Jews from an oppressed people (pegged as "non-Western" in older European contexts) to a powerful one (now identified as "Western" by most people), have all played a role in transforming modern Jewish identity. But none of this changes the fact that a continuous but constantly shifting IDEA of "Jewishness" has remained the a fact throughout the past 2000 years of European and Middle Eastern history, and that this diasporic community maintained imagined links with Palestine throughout its existence, even if most of its members lived outside of it.

"Israel" is, like every other identity, an "imagined community." While Benedict Anderson may have coined the term in a study of modern nation-states, his restriction of its applicability to post-Enlightenment situations was premature, (see esp. Seth Sanders' "The Invention of Hebrew" and John Kelly and Martha Kaplan's "Represented Communities" for detailed rebuttals of Anderson's modernity-centric perspective).

ALL communities of human beings are, and always have been, "imagined" in some sense. This does not make them "not real"--most of what human beings experience as reality is socially constructed. "The state" and "empire" are just as much "imagined communities" as ethnicity is, yet they are still "real" in a SOCIAL sense inasmuch as people believe they exist and act accordingly. They exist in people's minds and are propagated through social interaction, but this has real, material, and socioeconomic effects.

The Greek word "ethnos," from which modern English "ethnicity" is derived, was used in Classical times to refer to sociopolitical entities that would be called "tribes" or "chiefdoms" in modern anthropological and colloquial terminology. While "tribe" and (especially) "chiefdom" have definite connotations with regards to form of social organization, this does not mean that they were ever "ethnically neutral." The difference between a chiefdom and a state, ideologically, is essentially the difference between the "Kingdom of the Franks" and the "Kingdom of France." The former refers to a polity with an ethnic aristocracy; the latter refers to the same polity some centuries later when this tribal identity had become irrelevant and social status was based on one's position in the feudal hierarchy. The same applies to the Zulu Kingdom of South Africa--to be Zulu was certainly a political identity, but it had ethnic connotations as well, and when Shaka transformed the Zulu chiefdom into a state, simply being incorporated into his conquests did not make one a Zulu.
#15 - Robert M. Jennings - 01/19/2014 - 22:35



With all this in mind, while it is absolutely true that the boundaries of "Israelite-ness" in the Iron Age were certainly political and, to a certain extent, religious, this does not mean that they were not ethnic. These are not mutually exclusive categories. The NAME of Israel itself, in the contexts in which it appears, is evidence that some notion of "Israelite-ness" based in tribal identity existed. The consolidation of this tribal/cultic/political identity into something we can call "national" in anything like the modern sense may well date to the Persian or even Hellenistic period, but it was not pulled out of nowhere. It had its roots in the Iron Age, and while the status of Judah with regards to this identity may have shifted over time, by the 8th century BC we have the Judean prophets Amos, (First) Isaiah, and Micah identifying Judah as some part of this "Israel"--I take these prophetic texts to reflect at least an Iron Age core, given that the historical and cultural assumptions built into them (not to mention numerous failed prophecies) indicate such a context, although they were certainly edited and expanded substantially in later times.

Now all this says absolutely nothing about the best solution to the present-day Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The fact that the West Bank was inhabited by Israelites 3000 years ago does not give their present-day ethnic descendants the right to displace the contemporary Palestinian population, nor was it justification for the expulsion of 800,000 Palestinians from what is now Israel in 1948. The central problem is not who was there first, but who is there NOW, and that is both Israelis and Palestinians. The blame game needs to stop; efforts at erasing one people's history for the benefit of another are irresponsible and contribute nothing to the debate. People need to look forward, not backward. Only when people start doing that can we look at the ancient past with a less politicized eye.
#16 - Robert M. Jennings - 01/19/2014 - 22:36



'Being the same over time' and 'being the same at all stages of time' are not the same idea, as we see in the case of every human individual. It's a question of what establishes a continuity that is sufficient for whatever purposes we have in mind.
No one owns words and we can use what definitions we choose so long as we accept the implications of our choice. There are definitions of ethnic continuity under which Netanyahu is continuous with his biblical namesake and definitions under which he is not, just as there are definitions under which I am as English as Alfred the Great and under which I am not.
Professor Davies sets one standard of ethnic continuity which, because it draws attention to historical vicissitudes, is more exacting than Zionists might like. Professor Jennings substitutes a more Renan-style definition but still does not think that he has a idea of continuity which can be built into a claim that contemporary political rights follow from ancient history. This does not seem to me to end the blame game: if political rights are being claimed falsely on historical grounds that cannot justify such claims then the claim deserves the blame, I would say.
The Renan-style conception of continuity through IDEA is not as easily applied as all that. Alfred's conception of Englishness might be different from mine: he might be outraged at the thought of a non-Catholic claiming membership of his holy nation. Likewise I think it possible that the ancient Israelites had a self-conception so soaked in religion that it would not fit well with any modern sensibility.
#17 - Martin - 01/20/2014 - 12:22



@Martin: Of course nobody "owns" words; the issue is what sort of analytical use we get out of redefining them. Ethnicity is a social construct; trying to find a way to make it mean something other than the way it is traditionally used is an inherently political act--in practice, what it does is allow Davies to redefine the term as if his definition is its "real" definition, and then criticize archaeologists for using it "falsely," i.e. not in accord with his own, new definition. It's a bit disingenuous to criticize people's use of an analytical category when you are well aware that your definition represents a scholarly metalanguage that may not correspond to how that category is normally used. If Davies were to argue that his definition of ethnicity is of better analytical value than the standard one, that's one thing. To retroactively critique others for using it in a way that is not consistent with a new definition they were not aware of is disingenuous.
#18 - Robert M. Jennings - 01/20/2014 - 14:44



Davies seems to concentrate on the denotations or references of the term 'Israel', this kingdom, that province, and not on connotation or 'what it is to be'. He says towards the end, if I understand him, that he is suspicious of a connotation or definition with multiple criteria, and that this is the sort of connotation that the word 'ethnicity' has acquired, therefore he is generally disinclined to use the word. I partly share his suspicions in that with multiple criteria there can be persistent confusion over whether they are disjunctive or conjunctive, ie whether I am English if I use the language OR admire Shakespeare or whether I am English if I both use the language AND admire Shakespeare. I would just ask people to make themselves clear and use any term, however they want to use it, consistently. I don't that Davies is being disingenuous or imposing his definition on others. He's just saying that the word 'ethnicity' is used confusingly. Perhaps like me he is and isn't English because he has a Welsh name.
- Martin Hughes
#19 - Martin - 01/20/2014 - 16:08



I just think that that's part of the utility of "ethnicity's" polysemous nature--by it's very nature it has multiple and conflicting connotations, and the very nature of the term captures the unstable and shifting natures of ethnic groups themselves. I'm sure there were plenty of Iron Age villagers in Palestine who both were and weren't Israelite, just like I am and am not Irish, in a certain sense (I'm an American with a small percentage of Irish ancestry which was never emphasized growing up but was still treated in my family as something of an "interesting historical footnote").

There seems to be a desire here to define consistently a phenomenon which is inherently inconsistent, and to dispense with it altogether if we can't define consistently. I'm more of the opinion that we should embrace this inconsistency as part of the way human beings define themselves.
#20 - Robert M. Jennings - 01/20/2014 - 18:27



Robert M. Jennings wrote "there were plenty of Iron Age villagers in Palestine who both were and weren't Israelite,..." Since this article is about the correct use of the term ethnicity, we should expect some precision on the use of Palestine. The name Palestine originates from Israel's enemies, the Philistines. They lived in the southern coastal strip of the Mediterranean. There is no Iron Age Palestine. In fact, the name is first used geographically in the mid-fifth century BCE by Herodotus, a Greek. Yet a number of Greeks, Hecataeus, Clearchus and Manetho of Egypt, all called the area in which Jews lived, Judea. It is only in the first century that we encounter Jews Philo and Josephus using the term Palestine as a reference to the entire land, and only rarely. But more often Philo and Josephus used Palestine as the land of the Philistines, and frequently referred to Judea as the area "of the Jewish heartland around Jerusalem (Jacobson)." The use of the term has triggered a number of modern abuses. A good place to check all this is D.M. Jacobson, "Palestine and Israel," in: BASOR (1999), 65–74.
#21 - Juan Castro - 01/20/2014 - 20:33



@Juan: "Palestine" is the traditional modern name of the area, and as such is used in scholarly publications in what is technically an anachronistic fashion. But then, are you suggesting we stop using the term "Nubia" for the area to the south of Egypt in ancient contexts since it was not called that until the Byzantine era? "Palestine" was used for the area by Jewish settlers in the Ottoman and British periods and has only become a politicized term in English with the rise of the Palestinian national movement.

Ultimately, your nitpickiness about "Palestine" is analogous to Davies's about "Israel." You are both insisting we change the meaning and acceptability of analytical terms for political reasons, and I don't like it. It's Orwellian.

Also, I would think twice about labeling the Philistines "Israel's enemies" since it falls into the trap of taking the biblical authors' propaganda at face value. The Philistines were another shifting, porous ethnic group living in the region. Their relationships with the Israelites would have varied over time, and in many cases other sociopolitical factors would have trumped ethnic ones. Cf., the citizens of Ekron overthrowing their king and giving him over as a prisoner to Hezekiah of Judah because he refused to participate in the anti-Sennacherib revolt.

Your own comments indicate what I take to be the value of Davies's warning about "ethnicity"--it very often lends itself to essentialisms that do not (completely) reflect historical reality. I just think that Davies is throwing the baby out with the bathwater--we need these terms in order to understand the world, given that we are dependent on language to do so. The trick is to be able to use these terms while simultaneously understanding and accepting their inherent imprecision and fluidity.

History is not physics: you're dealing with human concepts and institutions, and so imprecision and fluidity need to be accepted as part of the equation.
#22 - Robert M. Jennings - 01/20/2014 - 22:06



Nobody knows the clear meaning of the the term Ethnicity, as prof Davis correctly states before going on to discuss it at some length. One has to be grateful to Davis for stating this well known fact again, as well for repeating in his article other well known positions and claims, including another tired attack on modern Israel. I failed to find a single new revelation or statement in his presentation.




Of course it helps if one choses, as he does, to omit completely from the discussion some well known archaeological facts. I'll mention only one: the names of the deity or deities that the people involved worshipped. For example, YHWH, in full or as prefix or suffix of personal names is attested in dozens of provenanced extra-biblical seals, bullae and jar-handles.




Didn't this deity play some role in the development of Judaism, Christianity and Islam?




Surely the old gardener in the parable of Davis would know the answer.




Uri Hurwitz
#23 - Uri Hurwitz - 01/22/2014 - 00:18



Well Juan, accolrding to Aristotle, the Dead Sea was in Palestine. The use of the name for the area between Syria and Egypt is far more frequent than you imagine. It Begins with Adad-Nirari c. 800 and continues as a normal designation of the territory until the Turkish conquest.

As to ethnicity, Barth is a good beginning but only a beginning. He himself made additions to his understanding in the 1990s.
#24 - Niels Peter Lemche - 01/22/2014 - 10:22



To Lemche.
The Assyrians also used Judah. From Sennacherib,"I devastated the wide province of Judah, the strong proud Hezekiah, its king, I brought in submission to my feet." Not only did Greek historians used the term Judea, a number of Roman historians used the term such as Plutarch, Tacitus, and Suetonius. The term is found on their coins and inscriptions. Until Hadrian Judea was the official Roman designation for the area. I note Mr. Jennings refers to my comment as "nitpickiness" ultimately "Orwellian." Using Palestine for the Iron Age Canaan and Ancient Israel is equivalent to arguing that the English established Jamestown in the United States.
#25 - J Castro - 01/22/2014 - 12:09



Perhaps the word Levant would be a suitable word for Iron Age Palestine/Israel/etc. It seems to me that the problem is the claim to exclusive rights to the land due to prior history in the land. The Arabs under the Byzantines and the Moslems have claim to possession of the land by centuries of occupation equal to Jewish claims of a right to possession due to Israel's prior occupation of the land from the Iron Age II through the Roman period. Both groups have historical ties to the land. Biblical history does not invalidate Arab history in the land for centuries, nor the other way around. Politicizing Biblical history/scholarship only bastardizes it.
#26 - Edward Mills - 01/22/2014 - 18:27



For J Castro
"...Using Palestine for the Iron Age Canaan and Ancient Israel is equivalent to arguing that the English established Jamestown in the United States."

This is perhaps the worst exemple possible. Jamestown founded 1607 by Englishmen in Virginia.

As to the use of Judea in classical sources, who for that matter never use Israel, are we talking about the Jehud in a narrow meaning, or the Whole country reckoned by them to be Palestine.

If you want authority, I believe that you will have problems finding a better than Aristotle. And he was not the only classical author to do so. But this does not need to be in competition to Judea, if Judea is limited to only a part of the country. I believe that Sennacherib used the term in exactly this reduced sense.
#27 - Niels Peter Lemche - 01/23/2014 - 13:47



The thing I've always wondered about is the absence of pigs. To casually say that the hill people didn't have pigs because they were hill farmers is not sufficient. Farmers cultivate animals regularly, and it just doesn't explain the lack of an easy source of protein. I know that those who hold the theory that the early Israelites were escaped Canaanite slaves or lower-class people say that they rejected pigs as being part of the society they fled, but that's too casual also. According to my reading, pigs would have thrived better in the hills than in the hotter coastal areas, so I am still at a loss why they would just dismiss a food source and later hardwire it into law. I know there is also a theory that the pig was their totem animal and as such, not eligible to be eaten, but that doesn't persuade me either.
I would appreciate some scholarly input into this issue.
#28 - Edward Morse - 01/23/2014 - 15:47



To Prof. Lemche

Perhaps you are missing the meaning of my comment. Your grievance is purely imaginary. Clearly Jamestown was established by the Virginia Company of London and the colony was not located at that time in the United States. I don't think we can call Canaan/Ancient Israel Palestine because the word appears in an Assyrian annal. I suspect the reference is to the area of the Philistines, not the entire land. Judah and Samaria appear far more in Assyrian historical records. Where are the Iron Age inscriptions from Canaan and Israel referring to the land as Palestine? Far as I know there are none. Referencing all of Canaan, Ancient Israel, or Judah for the Iron Age is an anachronism. It is historical jujitsu to claim otherwise. As for Aristotle using Palestine for the entire land after the Iron Age, other Greeks use Judea as I mentioned. Historically Romans used the term Judea and the so did Jews. The fact remains Judea is not an abstract term and does not cease to exist because others prefer Palestine. It is an accurate, legitimate term regardless of modern politics.
#29 - J Castro - 01/23/2014 - 18:22



I have 17 Assyrian references (via Robert Whiting from the Assyriological project at the University of Helsinki), ranging from c. 800 to the end of the Assyrian empire. Classical authors go from Herodotus via Aristotle to Polemn, to Ovid, to Pliny the Older, to Pausanias, and more.

Just as interesting is a passage in Philo (you find it in Yonge's translation p. 689: XII. (75): Moreover Palestine and Syria too are not barren of exemplary wisdom and virtue, which countries no slighth portion of that most populous nation of Jewish inhabitants.

The Roman name after 135 C.E. seems to be Syria Palestina, very much the same terminology as used by Herodotus.

Judea was used by the Romans to denote a province created after the Roman conquest of Judea, Samaria and Edom.

But it is definitely worth the effort to make a survey of all passages relevant to this discussion.
#30 - Niels Peter Lemche - 01/24/2014 - 04:51




The existence of Judea in all its vicissitudes for many centuries is well known and attested in various extra-biblical sources. This fact needs repeating because the minimalists tend to ignore that which does not fit their ideology.




The Romans issued the commemorative 'Judea Conquered' coins ('Judae Capta') for quite a few

years . Was there a Roman ' Palaestina Capta' coin? In this context The Arch of Titus can serve as another example.







Uri Hurwitz
#31 - Uri Hurwitz - 01/24/2014 - 20:33



As to names, I think Pliny's remark about the different names that had been in use is fair enough, if somewhat second-hand in information. Maybe it should be quoted prominently in all discussions of the topic.
I'm not quite sure what is the point at issue. The area around Jerusalem was often called Judaea. The wider area was often called Palestine. There seems to be basic agreement about that - or am I mistaken?
As to 'Orwellian'. Newspeak was designed to suppress ideas partly by avoiding all ambiguity or variation of meaning in words. I would argue that Professor Davies, who specifically draws attention to variation in what certain words denote, is operating in a distinctly anti-Newspeak direction, so is quite the reverse of Orwellian.
#32 - Martin - 01/25/2014 - 17:56



Well, people could start studying the cincept of ethnicity before they join the discussion. I can recommend as an introduction Steve Fenton, Ethnicity (second edition; Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010) just to get an overview. As to tradition and society, there are the classics, such as Benedict Anderson, Imagines Communities (rev. ed. London: Verso, 2006), and E. Hobsbawn and T. Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983). When you have finished these classics, there is much more belonging to the modern discussion, and then it is perhaps possible to return to the issue here without making a fool of oneself.

How complicated the issue of ethnicity is, and the problems the way it is used among biblical archaeologists and scholars can be seen from my "Using the Concept of Ethnicity in Defining Philistine Identity in the Iron Age," The Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 26, 2012, 12-29.
#33 - Niels Peter Lemche - 01/26/2014 - 03:48



Martin--He's acknowledging its ambiguity, but then arguing that its ambiguity is a reason to get rid of it. I think we should simply use the term WITH its ambiguity. The fact of the matter is that all terms are ambiguous, but that they still have a limited semantic range in which one can "get the gist" of their meaning. Basic Wittgenstein.

Davies may be far more articulate in his argument than Juan, but still--I'm just not comfortable with redefining words apart from their everyday use unless it is analytically necessary to do so. With "ethnicity," I don't think it is.

Historically, in English, "Judea" is the region around Jerusalem, "Judah" is the term for the Iron Age kingdom in that region, "Israel" refers to a kingdom or tribal confederation that sometimes contained Judah and sometimes did not, while "Palestine" is the country as a whole. The precise borders of the territory signified by each of these terms has fluctuated over time. This does not mean we should not use them, as otherwise we'd be unable to say anything about them.
#34 - Robert M. Jennings - 01/26/2014 - 12:01



I won't disagree about the general reference of the names you mention, Professor Jennings. Such was the impression made on me as I sat, deeply impressed, through many Bible readings in my young days. We're now more aware, I suppose, that those usages - part of the language game of the Church of England, Wittgenstein might say - reflected centuries of acceptance of the Biblical narrative in what might now seem a rather uncritical way.
Wittgenstein's methods permitted him to say that certain common locutions were dangerous, for instance 'that we think with our heads' (Zettel, 606)- and that seems to me to be what Professor Davies began by doing. Orwell too gave much thought to dangerous forms of language: I would still say that explicit warning of the danger inherent in certain ways of speaking is the reverse of Newspeak and I still demur from your 'Orwellian' here. I do think that a language game exists in which terms like 'ancient Israel' and 'Biblical archaeology' work to keep thought within certain channels.
Still, I don't call for any words or terms to be abandoned. I'm satisfied with consistent use and with explaining what one means.
#35 - Martin - 01/26/2014 - 17:23



"Historically, in English, "Judea" is the region around Jerusalem, "Judah" is the term for the Iron Age kingdom in that region, "Israel" refers to a kingdom or tribal confederation that sometimes contained Judah and sometimes did not, while "Palestine" is the country as a whole. The precise borders of the territory signified by each of these terms has fluctuated over time. This does not mean we should not use them, as otherwise we'd be unable to say anything about them."
- Robert M. Jennings

Fine, and every point can be validated.

It is intellectually dishonest to deny, or simply ignore, this established nomenclature because of political motivation, as is done by some. Note #6 in the discussion above: "some among us (probably not where you live) are very tired of the way our field is handled by Christian and Jewish Zionism. Probably time to do something about it."
Uri Hurwitz
#36 - Uri Hurwitz - 01/26/2014 - 20:40



Martin--First, I'm not a professor, I'm a PhD student, but I'm flattered by the assumption.

I actually totally agree about the dangers inherent in terms like "Ancient Israel" and "biblical archaeology"--the latter especially, I hate, because it serves to restrict the types of questions we can ask about the archaeological record.

"Ancient Israel" on the other hand, I'm perfectly comfortable with. What makes it problematic is not the usage of the term itself, but when the term is used in order to justify contemporary Zionist political claims. But there's a difference between making a historical claim and a normative claim based on that historical claim.

The issue is this--in PRACTICE, much of the study of Ancient Israel in the 20th century has been consumed by the public operating under an essentialist notion of ethnic identity. Contemporary archaeologists, including Israeli archaeologists, know better. But they are generally not good at communicating the nuances of their ideas to the popular press. Figures like Yossi Garfinkel and Eilat Mazar, who tend to be good with the press and at least in the case of E. Mazar have definite nationalist commitments, are generally allowed to dominate the press, because they tell people what they want to hear in accessible two-minute soundbites. It doesn't help that there's an American biblical archaeology industry thanks to that Hershel Shanks, who knows exactly how to stroke otherwise responsible scholars' egos so as to get them into shouting matches so as to sell his magazine.

In practice, the focus on "biblical archaeology" HAS served to "silence Palestinian history" as Keith Whitelam would put it, and as Nadia Abu el-Haj has demonstrated. In the early days of Israeli archaeology this was part of a deliberate nation-building project. In more contemporary times (with the exception of nutcases like Eilat Mazar) it is not; most Israeli archaeologists today just want to do their work, even if their interest is motivated by a desire to "search for origins." But is that unreasonable? Every people has stories about its past, and for modern secular Jews (like myself--in addition to being 1/8 Irish I'm 7/8 Ashkenazi), who do not believe in the traditional religious narrative, this secular-academic enterprise provides an alternative sense of history to fill the "void," left by abandoning religion. Identity is always being continuously constructed and
re-constructed, but that does not make it "unreal" or "invalid."

But we do have to a responsibility to make sure that in constructing our own identity we do not erase that of others. This is where I differ from Whitelam and Abu el-Haj. I do not feel that it is necessary to silence or minimize Jewish history in order to atone for the sin of silencing Palestinian history. I think that in order for any kind of real, respectful co-existence, people need to recognize each other's rights and dignity both as human beings and as members of real nations.

Archaeologists are implicated in this. Our work is enabled by a political context, and the narratives we create can be used by people with agendas we don't necessarily agree with. Therefore it is incumbent upon us, I think, to stop pretending our work does not have political implications and to engage the mainstream press in order to de-essentialize potentially dangerous concepts like "ethnicity" and even "identity."

But de-essentializing does not necessarily mean "denying." It simply means being more nuanced, not taking money from organizations like Elad, and not collaborating with unscrupulous characters like Hershel Shanks. It means engaging in community archaeology projects that make people understand that all archaeological heritage is ultimately a universal, human cultural heritage, and it means creating more inclusive narratives that emphasize that Jews are only one of the many groups who have inhabited Palestine throughout history.

In the end, it means constructing a common human identity that is able to include both Israelis and Palestinians without trying to erase the history of one or the other. Very few people on either side seem willing or able to do that.
#37 - Robert M. Jennings - 01/26/2014 - 21:36



And yet, it's the Israelis who are working to conserve archaeological sites, although I have my issues with the IAA, and the Palestinians who destroy artifacts that do not accord with their narrative.
#38 - Edward Morse - 01/28/2014 - 07:11



If you're not a Professor, Mr. Jennings, you will be: can't keep a good man down.
I don't know that we're that far apart. Like you, I don't want to exclude words, though there's much to be said for clear definition in my view. If 'ancient Israel' means the territory claimed for Israel in the Bible, that's one thing. If it means 'followers of the Mosaic religion in ancient times' that's another. Both should not be used interchangeably because that would be a way not of defining words but of covertly asserting factual claims.
#39 - Martin - 01/28/2014 - 15:41



Edward Morse's comment on "the Palestinians who destroy artifacts that do not accord with their narrative" distorts. The Ísraeli alternative to his destructive Palestinians; are surely the bulldozers of just a generation ago. The distortion is doubly insidious
within this very fruitful discussion about how to write the history of this region, which creates a heritage that is inclusive. Speaking of modern history, Ilan Pappe once expressed the ideal of a history which all of his students in Haifa--Palestinian and Israeli--could associate with and appreciate. This characteristic I think should
also be a requirement of any future history of the southern Levant.
Thomas

Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen
#40 - Thomas L. Thompson - 03/03/2014 - 08:41






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