Notes on Chapter 2 of The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand


A selective summary of Shlomo Sand’s _The Invention of the Jewish People_, Chapter 2:

Flavius Josephus was a Jew in the 1st century CE who imitated an earlier historian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Dionysius had written about Roman antiquity, and Flavius used similar style to write about Jewish antiquity. Flavius started by assuming that the Old Testament had been dictated by God to Moses, and was historically factual.

Sand noted that secular Israelis demand that the Old Testament be regarded as historically factual in its story of the Jewish people, but not in its stories of miracles.

Several historians wrote early histories of the Jews, but in the 1850s, Heinrich Graetz wrote a story which minimized evidence of internally diverse Jewish multiplicity and stressed a narrative of Jewish unity. Sand regarded Graetz as the first historian to invent the Jewish “people” or “nation.” In order to push the propaganda of a unified Jewish nation, Graetz claimed that earlier historians had “torn holes” in history.

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Sand noted that while Graetz’s Jewish contemporaries regarded the Old Testament as less central than the Mishnah and Talmud, Graetz used the Old Testament as nationalist propaganda. Many Jews who wanted to reject supernatural religion felt more comfortable using ethnic chauvinism as a substitute for revealed religion. Graetz initially wavered between spiritual and materialistic perspectives, but the enthusiasm of a materialistic nationalist named Hess motivated Graetz to favor a materialist perspective. Graetz argued that the Jewish race was unique among human types for achieving and attaining an eternally unified, nationalist character, infinitely superior to all other races and nations.

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Sand noted that after Graetz, later Jewish propagandists, such as Dubnow, made historically untenable claims, such as the claim that Jews originated as a nation in the twentieth century BCE.

Sand noted that Genesis mentions Philistines, Aramaeans, and camels, but that archaeology claims that camels were first domesticated around the start of the first millennium BCE, and only used as practical beasts of burden around the eighth century BCE. Further, Abraham is said to have arranged a marriage for Isaac with a girl from the city of Nahor, which could not have happened earlier than the ninth century BCE. Further, Egyptian inscriptions mention Israel as a tribe that was defeated and wiped out entirely in the thirteen century BCE, after which it had “no more seed.” The land of Canaan, at that time, was entirely under the control of the pharaohs of Egypt.

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Sand wrote that the Egyptian overlords withdrew from some of their territory some time betweent the twelfth and tenth centuries BCE, allowing the autochthonous peasants to rule themselves. Archaeologists showed that one group of autochthonous farmers had no pig bones in their settlements. There is no evidence that these pig-avoiding farmers were foreigners, or that they were monotheists. Further, no diggings showed any evidence of edifices or artifacts that could have been constructed by the legendary tenth-century kings David and Solomon.

Sand praised the Old Testament as monotheistic and noted that the Hebrew term for religion is Persian in origin. Sand then agrees with the old idea that Hebrew religion began as an imitation of Persian religion. Students of Rivelo Oliver will recall his famous essay on this point.

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Epilogue, by gaikokumaniakku:

Mythical Ancestors From Unrelated Cities: Virgil’s Aeneid, Ezra’s Old Testament, and Vietnamese Rain Dragons

Legend has it that ancient Vietnamese people believed themselves to be the descendants of a dragon who supplied the rain required for agriculture. This Vietnamese legend may be based on older Chinese legends of draconical ancestors.

Before the time of Virgil, there were legends that Aeneas the Trojan had been associated with the founding of Rome. Virgil wrote a story about Aeneas with definite literary influence from Homer. Rome had already existed long before Virgil was born; Virgil wanted to give Rome a sense of ethnic cohesion by reverence to a mythical ancestor adopted from Troy, an unrelated city. Virgil used his story to inform Romans that they ought to prove their Roman identity by practicing the virtues of Aeneas.

Jewish priests used the Old Testament to inform Jews that they ought to prove their Jewish identity by practicing the Jewish virtues of various Old Testament heroes, such as Elijah, who rebuked kings who had fallen into paganism. One Old Testament passage about Ahab reads:

He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. And Ahab made an Asherah (1 Kgs 16:32– 33, RSV).

From this, Jewish audiences were supposed to understand that Baal was an evil god and “an Asherah” was a pole erected to revere an evil goddess of the same name, and that good persons should not show any kindness or courtesy to such evil deities.

The Old Testament was probably compiled around 440 B.C. by Ezra. It may be that Ezra was attempting to give his community a sense of ethnic cohesion by reverence to mythical ancestors adopted from unrelated cities. It may be that Ezra was editing similar pious frauds from various earlier points in history.

Many writers have commented that parts of the Old Testament appear to be pastiches of the Enuma Elish. Some say these pastiches are clumsy imitations, indicating servile obsequiousness to non-Jewish paganism; others say these pastiches are refutations and satirical parodies that expose the falsehood of non-Jewish paganism.

The Old Testament also contains passages about allegedly Hebrew or Jewish kings, such as Ahab, Jehu, and Manasseh. During that era, the region had pagan kings of established ethnicities, such as Shalmaneser and Ashurbanipal. It is not clear that Ahab, Jehu, and Manasseh could actually be called ethnically “Hebrew” or “Jewish.” Modern skeptics have questioned whether any recognizable kind of ethnic “Hebrew” or “Jewish” identity existed at that time.

For centuries, Christians accepted the Old Testament as historical. Christians assumed that Elijah served the same god as Ezra did by reason of birth, and that Ahab had been born into the Jewish tribe that owed service to that god, and that Ahab was led astray by Jezebel the foreigner. Modern skeptics can raise various questions: What if Elijah had no ethnic connection to Ezra? What if Ahab was born in a tribe that served a notable pagan god such as Marduk? What if Jezebel’s cult, that so angered Elijah, was not any more foreign than Elijah’s own cult?

It is likely that historical documents from other cultures, e.g. Assyria, could be assembled to prove that there were historical warlords named Ahab, Jehu, and Manasseh. It is less likely that independent documents could be found to support claims that Elijah was a historical person.

The popular mainstream histories of Christendom told their readers that Ahab, Jehu, and Manasseh were kings of Israel and Judah, and for centuries Christians never doubted that these kings had been ethnically Jewish. However, today’s skeptics are free to ask whether any kind of Jewish identity existed before the editor of the Old Testament invented it. They may likewise ask whether the editor borrowed completely unrelated legendary figures from foreign cities and set them up as ancestors of the Jewish tribe in order to fabricate a sense of ethnic identity where none had existed before.

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One Response to Notes on Chapter 2 of The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand

  1. Pingback: Two Vultures of Scriptural Criticism, featuring Shlomo Sand | vulture of critique

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