For a recent term paper I needed to catalogue the contents of the 24 extant Greek manuscripts (pre-7th century) of the Shepherd of Hermas. I’ve written here about the Shepherd’s significance from the 2nd to 4th centuries CE before, but for this paper I was interested in all of the Greek manuscripts we have before Latin became the primary language of both the Church at large and the Shepherd’s use/preservation.
I was surprised to find that no one had really put together the relevant information in a list or chart. Appendix 1 in Larry Hurtado’s The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (pgs. 224-225) only extends to the early fourth century, as he’s primarily interested in the pre-Constantinian period. But he doesn’t list contents of the manuscripts.
I built off the graph Hurtado started, adding all other manuscripts through the 6th century CE with a number of additional fields. For one thing, the Shepherd uniquely uses two systems of numbering/citation—one continuous, with chapters numbering 1 to 114, and another that breaks the chapters up into sections of 5 Visions, 12 Commandments/Mandates, and 10 Similitudes. I list the contents of each manuscript using both notational forms, given that both still carry currency and are recommended by SBL in citation of the Shepherd. I’ve also linked to each manuscript fragment’s entry in the exceedingly useful Leuven Database of Ancient Books, or LDAB, and to each manuscript’s free and open online access, where available. Without further ado (click image for full chart):
I hope that this chart is useful to other scholars and interested persons. In the future I may add where the critical editions of each manuscript can be found, but LDAB has much of this information even if it is sometimes difficult to decipher. Let me know if you see any errors that require fixing.
 Because this is so wonky, we who study the Shepherd even get our very own Appendix in the SBL Handbook of Style! See Appendix D of the 2nd ed., pgs. 331-332.
It’s not everyday that the course of my research drives me into immediately popular territory—that is, interesting and relevant to normal people who don’t spend all of their time thinking about religion or biblical studies. But recently I was looking into court cases and other newsworthy incidents surrounding the public display (meaning, on public property) of nativity scenes. The end result was a fun term paper on a 37-year-old case that took place right in my backyard of Denver, for which professors from my two institutions (Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver) served as expert witnesses. It was called Citizens Concerned for Separation of Church and State v. City and County of Denver, and most of the relevant details can be read in the Saint Louis University Law Journal, if you’re interested.
In his deposition for that case, the Mayor of Denver, William McNichols, testified of the nativity scene:
“It is not offensive to anyone nor should it be.”
The mayor might have needed a lesson on facts versus opinions. Whether the crèche was offensive or not was not the concern or the trial; rather, the groups that bring these sorts of suits allege that the display of religious symbols on public grounds violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause. Contrary to Mayor McNichols, Judge Richard Matsch heard at trial from a number of people—professors of religion, psychologists, a Jewish woman, Christians of various denominations, and an atheist—very compelling reasons why the crèche was offensive.
Somehow, the judicial system has held that the display of the nativity scene on public grounds is permissible, thus ignoring the Constitution “in order to placate popular opposition to its clear demands.” Thus we continue to see episodes of competingdisplays between Christian nativities, a Satanist “snaketivity,” Gay Pride Festivus Poles, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and placards wishing passersby a “Happy Solstice.” What insanity!
In the midst of my research, I became interested in the history of the nativity scene: when it was first displayed, how it developed, and why it’s now such a cultural cause célèbre. I didn’t answer all of these questions scientifically. For the last of them, it seems to me that a subset of Christians latch onto the nativity scene out of a concern that Christ not be erased from Christmas, given that it’s the most overtly religious symbol for what broader culture has so egregiously refashioned as the “Holiday Season.”
The other questions are more empirically answerable. And the result is a story not often told.
Though they contain some common elements, such as Mary’s virginal conception and the birth in Bethlehem, the two gospels featuring “pre-ministry” narratives are essentially irreconcilable. Matthew tells a story of Joseph’s dreams, a hovering star, a birth in Mary and Joseph’s “hometown” of Bethlehem, the visit of the magi, and the family’s exile in Egypt during the final stages of Herod the Great’s life (d. 4 BCE). Luke replaces these elements with Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, the worldwide census under the governorship of Quirinius (c. 6 CE), an improbable trek to Bethlehem from the family’s hometown of Nazareth, no vacancy at the inn, a choir of angels, and curious shepherds.
Told as they were by different human authors for different human audiences on opposite ends of the Roman Empire—some 75 to 100 years removed from the events they describe—these disparate stories cannot be plausibly combined into a master narrative, as careful observers in the early church recognized. Scholars have generally decided that the narratives were constructed not as a reflection of history, but to conform to various so-called prophecies from the Hebrew Bible other typological and mythological elements. Jesus was probably not born in Bethlehem, but in his well-acknowledged hometown of Nazareth, and his conception and birth were most likely completely conventional.
But the Christians of late antiquity certainly weren’t privy to the conclusions of modern scholarship. Instead, their art reflected the stories told in scripture. When Christianity achieved the status of approved religion in the Roman Empire in the 4th century, artwork celebrating Jesus’s birth began to appear—ironically enough—on the large, ornate stone coffins known as sarcophagi (singular: sarcophagus, from Greek, literally meaning “flesh-eater.”). A few examples are below in Figs. A and B:
In comparison to the common modern nativity scene, with their hosts of characters, these depictions are rather reserved. Fig. B shows Mary and Joseph, while Fig. A only includes Mary, and both feature the magi paying their respects to Jesus. A star hangs nearby Mary in both examples. But the most interesting element of these sarcophagi is the pair of animals overlooking the infant Jesus, which appears in neither of the gospel accounts telling the story of his birth.
As becomes clearer in the artwork below, these animals are an ox and an ass. Though traditionally mentioned together in the Hebrew Bible, such as in the well-known opening verses of Isaiah (“The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib…” [Is 1:3]), the iconography of the ox and the ass does not point to any particular scriptural referent. Instead, Jonathan Pageau counts their primary intention at the nativity as the proclamation of the church made possible by Jesus’s sacrifice; thus, the animals at Jesus’s birth foretell the joining together of the clean (the ox, representing Jews/Israel) and the unclean (the ass, representing Gentiles, sinners, etc.) under the plan of God (cf. Acts 10; Galatians 3:28-29).
Eventually, nativity artwork appeared on other mediums, from gospel manuscripts and book covers to the ceilings and altars of holy spaces. In each case, the ox-ass pairing is retained, and Joseph also becomes a mainstay of the depictions. A representative example of such artwork from the 5th to the 13th centuries is below:
Interestingly, before about 1000 CE, surviving examples of nativity art are rare. Though an imperfect representation of nativity scene popularity in the historical imagination, the search results bar reproduced below, revealing hits (including some false hits) for the term “nativity,” yet approximates the development of the crèche in surviving art. It suggests growth and increased interest in the nativity beginning significantly only in the second millennium of the common era.
It is, of course, possible that the set-in-stone sarcophagus inscriptions are merely our earliest surviving examples of nativity artwork, and that drawings and paintings of the nativity were popular from the earliest Christian centuries, but have not survived the stresses of time. This would be an argument from silence, however, and I am aware of no nativity artwork from—to take a thematic example from other spaces of preserving the remains of the deceased—early Christian catacombs, where other scriptural referents reign: Jonah and the whale, Jesus’s baptism, the raising of Lazarus, Jesus and the Samaritan woman, and others. Absent historical evidence, I proceed under the impression that nativity artwork only became a topos in the 4th century, though situated within and juxtaposed against the space of human death, it may well have emerged as a rather literal hetero-topos (following Michel Foucault and Eric C. Smith) before emigrating into other artistic venues.
The Third Dimension: Stand-Up Nativities
Still, even through the completion of the 13th century Fig. G above, the crèche abided only in two-dimensional artwork. It wasn’t until 1223 CE when St. Francis of Assisi organized the first “live” nativity that the scene would pop out of popular art into the third dimension. Notably, however, his visual depiction mirrored the simplest of the art displayed above. A recent article in Slate explains:
St. Francis got permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals—an ox and an ass—in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. He then invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.” (Francis was supposedly so overcome by emotion that he couldn’t say “Jesus.”)
It is unclear whether this first stand-up nativity scene included living human beings and an infant, but L.V. Anderson adds that either way, it had primarily educational value in a day when few understood the Latin spoken at mass. St. Francis delivered his message in the local tongue rather than the high church language, and his public display of the nativity performed the same familiarizing effect. He presumably expounded on the significance of the ox and the ass while telling the story of Jesus’s birth, now relocated to a cave (as in Figs. D and F above) given the influence of the account in the Protoevangelium of James[ch. 19] and the well-known fact that the Bethlehem Church of the Nativity was situated atop a grotto ripe for the pilgrimage. One can only long to have heard the story as St. Francis told it, if for no other reason to understand how he managed to narrate the events completely without mentioning Jesus.
This gesture, equal parts reverential and educational in genesis, would spread rapidly across the European continent. It was further fertilized by the Catholic Church’s response to Martin Luther, whose Protestant Reformation opposed rampant iconography and instead preferred the evergreen tree as a Christmastime symbol. In response, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) boosted the staying power of the nativity scene, blessing it as an officially sanctioned display, but also detaching it from the canonical birth accounts. Previously, most artwork featured only one scene or the other: the magi bearing gifts (so Matthew) or the shepherds and the angels (so Luke). Now, as in the present day, all characters were invited to the scene.
Shortly after the Council of Trent, the Jesuit Order set mechanizing the crèche into workable, automatic three-dimensional displays. These mechanical exhibits were soon in full demand among the wealthy, aristocratic classes and in churches and royal palaces as well. One example, constructed toward the end of the 16th century for the Court of Saxony, “includes shepherds and kings proceeding past the manger while angels fly down from Heaven, Joseph rocks the cradle, and an ox and an ass rise up to stand before the Holy Infant.” Within just a few centuries, the St. Francis’s simple educational and reverential endeavor had given way to the sort of ostentation we moderns might enjoy during an 8 p.m. drive around Suburbia.
Despite Reformation-era divisions between the evergreen “Christmas tree” and the nativity scene, contemporary American Protestantism has found little problem incorporating both symbols of the holiday season. Few are aware that Martin Luther and early Protestants virulently opposed the iconography of the crèche, often counted as the more explicitly religious of the two symbols today, and virtually all would be surprised to learn that the nativity scene is a phenomenon limited largely to the second Christian millennium. This brief history of the nativity does not detract from its present popularity within Christianity, but adds an oft-untold backstory of the most popular display of religion to modern battles over its appropriateness in the public square.
At best, the nativity scene is a theologically rich, though historically dubious, symbol of the Christian proclamation of Jesus’s origins. Though revered by many, it attests to particular ideas not apparently shared in the period of Christian origins by the authors of Mark and John, and also not celebrated in the present day by certain Christian denominations and individuals. As a display and even in artwork, the crèche was developmentally delayed, and did not appear extensively until the 11th century. Treasuring the display of the nativity scene is thus largely a product of the second Christian millennium, though it eventually achieved near-ubiquity in the Christian world as a symbol of reverence. Even then, Protestant Reformers would reject the nativity on iconographic grounds for a while, preferring to erect evergreen trees as part of their Christmas celebrations. Most who faithfully place the nativity scene side-by-side with a Christmas tree are probably unaware of the previous Catholic-Protestant rift exemplified by these two symbols.
The early 20th century witnessed many municipalities—including Denver, beginning in 1913—opting to display the nativity scene on public grounds with public funds, and this lasted for decades without significant opposition given Christianity’s grip on American society. Today, however, the nativity scene can only be so publicly arrayed as a denial of pluralism and the erosion of Christianity as the common cultural soil. What St. Francis cobbled together out of deep reverence, and as an educational tool, is often foisted upon the public sphere antagonistically, wrapped in the clothes of tradition but imbued with spite, rather than the good news. The escalating recriminations in recent years from atheists, humanists, and wisecrackers are but a mirror, a long time coming, held up in the face of this protracted evangelism-by-force.
It’s no wonder that fewer and fewer are interested in this version of the Christian story.
 Jonathon B. Chase, “Litigating A Nativity Scene Case,” Saint Louis University Law Journal 24.2 (Sept. 1980): 237-271. The plaintiffs, members of a Denver humanist organization, were represented by the ACLU of Colorado, which argued a rather excellent case and won a slam-dunk decision by Judge Richard Matsch, though the decision was immediately stayed and later vacated over “standing” concerns. (At retrial in 1981, the Tenth Circuit Court found resoundingly against the Citizens Concerned group.)
 Ibid., 239.
 For example, the Jewish woman explained powerfully that the crèche made her wary of persecution, while the two Christians expressed various misgivings, including that they were disappointed in how the city’s display elevated their beliefs while simultaneously demeaning or disregarding those of others. Most significantly, the clinical psychologist testified to feelings of fear and exclusion within out-group members when the dominant culture stages “public expressions of values” not shared by the entire society. The testimony had a significant cumulative effect on Judge Matsch, who ruled that “the evidence presented at this trial is so overwhelmingly supportive of the plaintiffs’ position.” Furthermore, he noted: “The convincing expressions by various witnesses of their feelings of “discomfort,” “anger,” “fear” and “being left out” upon viewing the scene, coupled with the expert testimony of the psychologist as to the effects upon minorities of symbolic governmental alignment with the majority, strongly suggest that the Nativity Scene may well have the effect also of inhibiting religious beliefs (non-beliefs) of viewers.” Ibid., 265, 267.
 Chase, 268. See also Jill Nutter Fuchs, “Publicly-Funded Display of Religious Symbols: The Nativity Scene Controversy,” Cincinnati Law Review 51 (1982): 353-372.
 Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, updated ed. (New York: Anchor Bible Reference Library, 1993), 189.
 Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, trans. John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 164-166; 569.
 Pageau, interestingly, also regards the presence of the ass, as a beast of burden, as “a symbol of corporality itself,” and thus an indication of the Word made Flesh and the Johannine doctrine of the incarnation. I am open to this but not totally convinced; I would be interested in hearing whether the ox similarly carries some second-level symbolism.
 For greater detail, see Eric C. Smith, Foucault’s Heterotopia in Christian Catacombs (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 52 and the entirety of ch. 5.
 Christian Roy, “Christmas,” Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia: Volume 1 (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004), 64.
 Jessica Riskin, The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 26.
A week or so ago I published a blog post explaining why we dig in the ancient soil of Israel, from the material objects we seek to the immaterial motivations for excavating the remains of civilizations past. In doing so, I jotted down my own ideas, shaped as they necessarily are by my own participation in academia. Ultimately, I explained that we dig to allow these ancient peoples–Hazorites, in my specific case–a voice through which to tell their individual and collective stories, and so that through this discovery we can learn more about their civilization and ours.
On Wednesday, before leaving Anderson, I spent a few hours at the university library collecting journal articles, book chapters, essays and other materials published about Hazor by various scholars and archaeologists who have worked at the site for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem since 1955. These articles, written both for scholarly audiences in more obscure publications like the Israel Exploration Journal and for relatively popular audiences in Biblical Archaeology Review, have been listed among the basic bibliography provided to me in advance by the dig directors, given that I have opted to take the excavation as a formal course through the Hebrew University.
I began to read these articles on my bus ride to Chicago, and the following comes verbatim from Dr. Sharon Zuckerman, co-director of the Hazor excavation. At the time of the article’s publication, she was exploring the interesting possibility that Hazor’s destruction may not have been entirely by Joshua and the Israelites, but also (if not predominantly so) by a revolution of the common Hazorites:
This different possible interpretation of one crucial event in the history of Israel has led me to delve deeper in the search after “the common people.” The ordinary people, those shaping the existence and form of society by simply “being there,” form the “silent majority” of all ancient (and modern) civilizations. Their daily activities and mundane chores, conducted in the context of domestic quarters and simple dwellings, are often hidden from current research in Ancient Near Eastern and Israeli archaeology [and] as a result, the Canaanite and Israelite commoners–men, women and children–usually remain voiceless and their stories untold.
Through the combination of both archaeology and related sciences (such as archaeobotany, archaeozoology and geoarchaeology), I hope to suggest a comprehensive reconstruction of the functions of the simple households of the humble Hazorites and their daily activities. Such a reconstruction might shed a different light on every aspect of the life of these people: What did they eat, and where did they cook and consume their food? What kinds of artifacts did they produce and use? What was the nature of their domestic ritual activities? Where and how were they buried? In short, how did the ordinary Hazorites live and die, and how were they affected by the large political processes of the rise and decline of the kingdom?
I hope those common households will be “given a face” and can contribute to our understanding of the history of the city. I believe that investigating “from the bottom up” might afford us new insights to the processes of the rise and the fall of Canaanite Hazor, the mighty kingdom whose impression on the history of ancient Israel lasted for millennia.
Sharon Zuckerman, “Giving Voice to the Silent Majority of Ancient Generations,” Biblical Archaeology Review 34.1 (Jan/Feb 2008), 26; 82.
I’m taking it as a positive sign that I will be digging for the same explicit purpose as one, if not both of, my directors. Surely, it can’t be a negative sign.
I’m getting ready to board the (delayed) plane for Poland now, so this’ll be my last blog post from the states for a while! Since some have asked, I thought I would compile a post about my contact information while in Israel. You have several options, and I’d love to hear from you! Easiest and most efficient will be email, of course: heatonrd (at) gmail (dot) com. (Note: change the (at) to @ and the (dot) to a period, as you would for a normal email address. I’ve typed it this way to, if possible, avoid generating random spam to my inbox.) For those desiring different options, read on.
Except for emergencies, my phone’s regular capabilities (calling and traditional texting) will be switched off. But If you have an Apple device (iPhone, iPad, etc.), you can reach me through iMessage, which is like texting except it’s free. Send a message to rdheaton (at) anderson (dot) edu. If you’re brave enough, you can also try to FaceTime me with this same address.
I may get a calling card or Israeli cell phone, but I expect that the cost might be too silly. I can chat with voice over Skype, though. If you’d like to Skype with me at some point, drop me an email and we can try to figure something out.
Of course, if you’re Facebook or Twitter savvy, I’ll be checking those regularly as well. I keep my Facebook pretty restricted to people I know, but anyone is welcome to tweet me @heatonrob.
Like to write letters with pen and paper? You’re in luck as well. Snail mail to Israel takes 7-12 days, but if you plan ahead, you’ll be able to catch me at the two locations where I will have scheduled extended stays. Make sure to buy the appropriate amount of postage!
Mail to the kibbutz for the Hazor dig, where I’ll stay June 24-July 13 (send by July 1):
Guest Rob Heaton
Hazor Archaeological Expedition
Kibbutz Kefar HaNassi Village Inn
Kibbutz Kefar HaNassi 12305 ISRAEL
Mail to the convent/hostel in Jerusalem, where I’ll stay July 14-25 (send by July 13, but not before July 7):
Guest Rob Heaton
Ecce Homo Convent
Via Dolorosa 41
Jerusalem 91190 ISRAEL
And now, it’s time for some other details that I simply haven’t written elsewhere yet…
Time Zones: Israel is 2 hours ahead of Greenwich time, which means it’ll be 7 hours ahead of the current Eastern time and 8 ahead of Central time. If you’re in another time zone, or just want to know exactly what time it is where I am, check out the Time Zone Converter.
Dig Schedule: In another post I alluded to the dig hours and schedule, but a complete and detailed schedule is available (along with a bunch of other great information) from the Hebrew University’s Hazor Excavations Project website (click on “2012 Season Information” and scroll down).
My Itinerary: I’ve had a slight change of plans from those I posted a month ago. When I scheduled my flights back in early May, I wasn’t smart enough to realize I’d be landing in Tel Aviv on the Sabbath, which means that I generally wouldn’t be allowed to check into a hotel until sundown. (Oops.) So instead of spending Saturday night in Tel Aviv, where I’ve found only Jewish-owned hotels, I’ll spend my first night in Haifa, where I found a Christian-owned establishment. Nothing against Jewish-owned hotels, of course–I’ll stay at them later in my trip–but after 38 hours in planes, trains, and automobiles, I think I’m going to need some quicker sleep! As an added bonus, I’ll get to do some touristy Old Testament-related things around Haifa (Mt. Carmel is located nearby) that day.
I’ll type at you next from Poland or perhaps Israel; thanks for reading!
My departure for Israel is fast approaching (i.e., in the next few hours!), and given the groundswell of interest in my trip, I decided to create a three-part series to provide more information about what exactly I’ll be doing there. Part one covered basic facts about the history of Hazor, while part two covered the intentions and goals of modern archaeology (especially for biblical sites). Part three features some ideas and details about my journey around Israel once my three-week excavation is complete. (See also, my basic itinerary.) So, let’s dig in, shall we?
Except for two free weekends during which I may or may not schedule trips with my dig comrades, the next three weeks are pretty well accounted for. Wake up at 4:15 am, begin digging at 5:00 am, finish at 1:00 pm, in bed by 10:00 or 11:00. But soon enough, July 14 will roll around, and I’ll be on my own! Though I’m scheduled to stay in Jerusalem along the Via Dolorosa (i.e., the Way of the Cross, at least by the record of tradition), this will primarily be my nightly anchor spot for various trips around Israel.
To make this subject matter as easy to follow as possible, I have grouped the “attractions” I may or may not see/visit directionally from my post in Jerusalem. And I put “attractions” in quotation marks, because the word doesn’t seem quite right for the Holy Land. But, it’s the best I have for now, so we’ll work with it.
Jerusalem Itself: I reckon that you could spend an entire 12 days in Jerusalem and not exhaust your options, but I will self-limit to about 4 or 5 in order to see the other “centers” of Israel as well. Must-visit highlights include Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Memorial and Museum), the Israel Museum (where the Dead Sea Scrolls are housed–I may try to find the curator of this museum and introduce myself, because he is coming to Anderson University in the fall), the Western Wall (thanks for the yarmulke, Jasmine), King Hezekiah’s Water tunnel system, and of course, the numerous holy sites associated with Jesus’ last week. These include the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, the Via Dolorosa, the Upper Room, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and many more.
Galilee (North): My dig is taking place in Upper Galilee, so I’ll get many chances to tour around the region of Jesus’ origin. I am excited to kayak or canoe on the Sea of Galilee, as well as touring towns along its banks: Tiberius, Chinnereth, and Capernaum (including the traditional home of Simon Peter), and more. Certainly, I will also visit Sepphoris, Nazareth (including the Church of the Annunciation) and Mt. Tabor, where Jesus was said to have been transfigured before Peter, James and John.
Beersheba, Masada and the Negev (South): Two main cities south of Jerusalem that I plan to visit include Beersheba, which is strongly associated with, and may contain a well used by, Abraham, and Masada, where the last stages of the Jewish-Roman War took place around 70 CE. Since the Negev is basically desert, I think I’ll put this last on my list of priorities.
The Mediterranean Coast (West): There are a number of great locations to visit along the coast of what the Israelites knew as the “Great Sea”: the remains of the ancient Philistine cities Ashkelon and Ashdod, Tel Aviv, Caesarea, where an inscription of Pontius Pilate’s name was found, and Haifa. In Haifa, I may visit the cave where Elijah was said to have hidden, the Baha’i Shrine, and a naval museum dedicated to Jews who sought refuge from Europe during World War II. The entire coast is also full of amazing beaches, judging from the photos I’ve seen.
The River Jordan and Dead Sea (East): I will have to be most careful about travel to this region of Israel, as it includes the West Bank. I would like to visit Jericho and some towns along the west bank of the Dead Sea, but I will have to ask around to see if it’s safe for Westerners. Either way, I will be able to float in the Dead Sea at the very least while I tour Masada. In addition, my mother-in-law found a very interesting restaurant while looking in my Fodor’s travel book: in a town called Abu Ghosh, there is an American-style diner called the Elvis Inn. I may visit in tribute to my aunt, who is an Elvis fanatic.
I haven’t planned out an exact recreation/exploration schedule for myself to allow for flexibility where necessary, either as it is financially prudent or as my interest drives me (or the need to do laundry prevents me). In some cases, I may make reservations for scheduled tours from one of the tour companies in Israel, while in others I will travel mostly solo. So the exact details may be few and far between in this post, but for the time being, these are the ideas I’ve got bouncing around in my head. Rest assured, there will be more to come, and I’ll do my best to capture it with words and pictures right here on the blog.
Got any great ideas I didn’t mention? Want to encourage me to go somewhere I have mentioned, or just want a postcard from my travels? I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments below.
My departure for Israel is fast approaching, and given the groundswell of interest in my trip, I decided to create a three-part series to provide more information about what exactly I’ll be doing there. Part one covered basic facts about the history of Hazor, while part two covers the intentions and goals of modern archaeology (especially for biblical sites). Part three, tentatively, will feature some ideas and details about my journey around Israel once my three-week excavation is complete. (See also, my basic itinerary.) So, let’s dig in, shall we?
Leave it to my grandma to ask the most basic, fundamental question imaginable after I announced that I would be traveling thousands of miles to participate in the excavation at Hazor: What on earth are you digging for?
Sometimes I tend to forget that not everyone is a student in biblical studies. The question seemed so preposterous to me, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made, both in terms of material items we hope to find and the intentionality behind excavations.
In his 2002 autobiography Doors to Life, Dr. Gustav Jeeninga (the late professor for whom my fellowship is named) defines archaeological data as “human thought objectified and then fossilized.” If you ask me, this is a fantastic definition. Archaeology, then, becomes an endeavor not to uncover ancient writing samples, intact pottery or elaborate municipal structures, though the discovery of such items is certainly rewarding and of principal importance to academia. Rather, we seek these material objects only as clues to the ideas of cultures long left dormant and livelihoods of people long silenced. And specifically in regard to the Ancient Near East, our secondary interests include affirming the biblical record (or, at times, weighing the evidence against the biblical record) and attempting to fill its gaps. Such is the case for Hazor, a biblical town for which the gaps are numerous.
With Dr. Jeeninga’s definition in mind, we must note that we can only access this “fossilized human thought” through physical objects. The simple answer to my grandma’s question, in a material sense, is that we’re searching for whatever we might find. But certain items will be more valuable than others. Any objects containing writing will provide the most direct access to the ideas, needs, intentions, and daily life of the ancient people of Hazor, but it will be extremely unlikely to find writing on any intact items. More than likely, we could find writing on broken pieces of pottery or the ruins of old structures.
Potsherds: think of them like the garbage of the ancients.
At this point, it is necessary to explain a little bit about how cities were built, conquered and rebuilt over in the Ancient Near East. When people first settled a location, much like the North American settlers of the 17th century, location was everything. For the purpose of protecting a settlement from military bombardment, the highest points were often chosen for fortification. In some cases, these high points may not be any more than a hill or a mound (which we call tels), as opposed to a mountain or plateau, but any advantage the people could grab would be vital for security from adversaries. When a town would be overrun and rebuilt with frequency, new settlers–who were accustomed to first destroying or plundering everything of value from a previous settlement–would simply build on top of that previous settlement, either with completely new structures, or by incorporating the previous structures into their (perhaps only slightly) different vision for what civilization should look like.
As a result, there are two significant observations about doing archaeology at biblical sites that I should stress. First, with the exception of physical structures, which, if not destroyed by military edict, are easily preserved over time because of their intentional construction, we are digging through ancient peoples’ trash. Hazor is not Pompeii; the entire town was not flash-fossilized for posterity. It was conquered and plundered violently, and its new occupants would not have consciously built over items they regarded as valuables.
A second observation is that when you dig deeper and deeper at a location, you access more and more ancient strata of livelihood. Because the Hebrew University has sponsored excavations at Hazor for more than 20 seasons (usually six-week periods in the summertime), my dig will be exploring the 13th and 14th centuries BCE, which theoretically should not include any distinctly Israelite settlement. This is appropriately called the Canaanite Period, as it is associated with the time in which scholars believe Joshua wrote that Hazor stood as “the head of all those kingdoms” (Joshua 11:10 NRSV).
What is typically found when rummaging through ancient trash is pottery, pottery, and more pottery. Shattered pottery, mostly. If we’re lucky, we’ll find large pieces of pottery that can be later reconstructed and studied to understand its precise utility to the civilization. Pottery was also the paper of the day, so we will be highly interested in any engraving that we may find on the sherds of pottery. We could find anything from ancient business contracts to royal decrees to scribal alphabet writing practice!
Other items we may find include both municipal and private structures, human and animal remains, oil lamps, weapons, coinage, and deities (idols). In addition to preserved writing, these items would constitute the real gold of the excavation and, if found, will necessitate several pages of ink in the end-of-season report.
So as I’ve come to understand, though we dig for physical objects, we are simultaneously (and primarily) digging to learn more about ancient people who can no longer speak for themselves. We wish to understand their way of life, their beliefs, what they beheld as important, how they met their end, and, ultimately, what we can learn about our humanity from their activity and their temporality. In short, we dig to grant ancient peoples a voice.
My departure for Israel is fast approaching, and given the groundswell of interest in my trip, I decided to create a three-part series to provide more information about what exactly I’ll be doing there. Part one covers basic facts about Hazor, while part two will cover the intentions and goals of modern archaeology (especially for biblical sites). Part three, tentatively, will feature some ideas and details about my journey around Israel once my three-week excavation is complete. (See also, my basic itinerary.) So, let’s dig in, shall we?
Pronunciation of “Hazor”: HOTS-or (not HAY-zore or HA-zore!). Though Hazor is spelled in English with a z, this letter in Hebrew is a “sade,” which is vocalized like a “ts” digraph.
Location of Hazor: Hazor is situated roughly 10 miles north of the Sea of Galilee along what was a significant ancient pass into and out of the northern kingdom of Israel. Its relative distance from the heart of Israel, let alone the land of Judah or Jerusalem, made it somewhat of a forgettable city—at least as far as the biblical record is concerned. Whenever Israel happened to face a powerful enemy from the north, Hazor stood immediately along the firing line. Along with Dan, which is recognized as the northernmost distinctly Israelite settlement, Hazor is often found in lists of cities destroyed when wars would break out between nations.
Biblically Speaking, What is Known About Hazor?: Knowing that it could also be a stalwart protecting against attacks from the north, Hazor’s location and relative vulnerability led King Solomon to strengthen and fortify part of the city in the 10th century BCE (1 Kings 9:15). Earlier, the city was said to be entirely destroyed by the conquest of Joshua (Joshua 11:10-15), and it also served as the home base for the Canaanite King Jabin (Judges 4:2). After Solomon’s time, Hazor would be among the numerous cities overrun by Tiglath-pileser of Assyria (2 Kings 15:29). Later, Jeremiah would warn about Hazor’s destruction at Babylonian hands, prophesying, “Hazor shall become a lair of jackals, an everlasting waste; no one shall live there, nor shall anyone settle in it” (Jer 49:33 NRSV). Though Jeremiah’s message rang true—Hazor is thereafter mentioned only as a battle site in the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees—the site is today much more than an eternal wasteland. In fact, it is one of the largest and best preserved archaeological sites in Israel today.
Archaeologically Speaking, What Else Is Known About Hazor?: Though our biblical knowledge of Hazor is relatively limited to its continued destruction and fortification over the centuries, archaeology helps to fill in the details and, as much as is possible after the passage of time, give its residents a voice. We know that Hazor contained both an “upper city” and “lower city,” though both parts of the city were not always inhabited at the same time. In Solomon’s time, for example, the archaeological record tells us that only one half of the upper city was actively settled. Additionally, while Hazor has the remains of a Yahwistic cultic high-place, archaeologists have also found pagan religious symbols and structures. This raises an important question, specifically, how Israelite was Hazor?
Perhaps most significantly, by the time of Solomon we know that Hazor was well in decline. The city’s best years, during the second millennium BCE when it enjoyed a population of perhaps 20,000, were well behind it. Though Hazor is somewhat of an afterthought in the biblical record, its Canaanite significance is not questioned. Joshua 11:10 alludes to this, saying, “Before that time Hazor was the head of all those kingdoms” (NRSV).
Reasons for Choosing Hazor: When researching various digs taking place this summer, I decided I wanted to participate in an established dig with a respected university at a location with which I was (at least vaguely) familiar, and could therefore be connected with my studies in Old and New Testament. Hazor fulfills all of those requirements. The intrigue provided by the Canaanite/Israelite question—by which I mean, was there indeed continuous violent destruction or perhaps cohabitation and coexistence, and when?—and the archaeological significance of Hazor sealed the deal. With all I now know, I’m thoroughly looking forward to the dig!
Later this week, I will continue with a post about the reasons for archaeology, how excavations are undertaken, and much more. I hope it will provide more insight about what exactly I’ll be doing at Hazor, now that you know some basics about its history! Got any more questions or thoughts related specifically to Hazor? Feel free to leave them in the comments section, and I’ll answer them to the best of my ability!