Continued: Notes on “Civilizations of the Ancient Near East”

This is a continuation of my current project. Click here for the first post which outlines the project.

Palaces and Temples in Canaan and Ancient Israel (Vol. 1-2, William G. Dever, 605-614).

  • Utilizes the terms “Syria” and “Palestine” to avoid ethnic and time-bound terms (605).
  • For my purposes, I am not too interested in palaces.
  • Temples
    • Easier to identify because they held to a stereotypical style (607).
    • Smaller sanctuaries and private shrines often remain enigmatic (607).
    • Main ways to think of this region’s temples:
      • Houses for the gods
      • consecrated for sacred usage
      • run by priests
      • worship consisted of offering gifts, like food and drink.
        • Often times, the gods were related to aspects of fertility.
    • Chalcolithic-Early Bronze Age (c. 4000-2000)
      • Temple at En-gedi on a hill top with pits for offerings and an open area.
      • Later temples were constructed atop this site.
    • Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000-1500)
      • Four basic types
        • Two long room types
          • In these, they may have served both a religious and administrative function.
        • A threeroom type, which became the standard Phoenician and Israelite
        • Smaller temples or shrines which do not fit with the preceeding categories (609-610).
    • Late Bronze Age (c. 1500-1200)
      • Three-room, tripartite temple became standard.
        • I should look up pictures of these Temples and show this aspect of religion visually. Material culture is good.
      • Area H temple at Hazor best fits with this tripartite structure (Stratum XV)
      • There were also “bench temples”
        • Small sanctuaries with one or two rooms, plus a side room.
        • Bench around wall; central altar on back wall for worshippers.
        • See for reference Amenhotep III Stratum VII and Sety I Stratum VI temples at Beth She’an, Tel Mevorakh Stratum VIII temple, and three temples at Lachish “Faosse Temples”
        • At Hazor, the “Stelae Temple” of Area C has ten basalt standing stones. See also “Summit Temple at Lachish and Dayr ‘Alla in the Jordan valley.
      • Iron Age (c. 1200-600)
        • This is the most relevant for my writing. The previous data offers the historical and archaeological heritage of ancient Israelite temples.
        • Best preserved Philistine temple is Strata XII-X, 12th-10th century, at Tell Qasile.
        • Similar to bench temples in the Late Bronze Age; however, these ones had Aegean features, like votive offerings in large storeroom behind the altar. Also, a large outer court.
        • Israelite temples
          • Dan on the border of Palestine
            • Open air sacrificial podium
            • adjacent two room temple with altars.
            • Among finds were male and female figurines, incense stands, miniature altars, incense offering shovels.
            • Dates to 10th to 8th century and reflects 1 Kings 12:31, the period in which Jereboam ruled.
          • Arad, near Beer-Sheba
            • Same period as the Dan temple
            • tripartite structure
            • large sacrificial altar in open forecourt
            • smaller altars in inner chambers
            • Incense stands
            • bronze lion
            • “two shallow plate sinscribed with an abbreviated Hebrew formula that probably means “sanctificed for the priests” (1-2.611).
          • Smaller Israelite cultic installations
            • These were not temples; rather, ‘private shrines for family use” (611).
            • Short list
              • Shrine 2081 at Megiddo, “cult building” at Taanach, Tell al-Far’a gateway shrine, “Cult Room 49” at Lachish.
              • The aforementioned are all dated to the 10th century BCE.
            • Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, in eastern Sinai wilderness
              • Dever says 8th century; however, I have an article which, based on Carbon Dating, suggests that Kuntillet Ajrud can be dated back to the 10th century BCE. Thus, it would match with the Short list provided.
              • Inscribed stone votive bowl
                • What does this mean and what was inscribed on it?
              • “painted cultic scenes familiar from Canaanite and Phoeneician art
              • Hebrew graffiti
                • Blessing formulas relate to El, Baal, Yahweh, and Aherah.
              • ‘Ajrud shrine for “caravans traversing the desert region.
                • Still, though, it is primarily Israelite-Judean.
            • Temple-sanctuary at Qitmit, east of Beer-sheba in eastern Negev Desrt
              • Dated the seventh century.
              • Edomite
                • Many terra-cottta deity representations.
            • Most famous is Solomon’s Temple, but we only see this directly in 1 Kings 6-7.
              • My thought: Based on the existence of many other temples through Palestine in the 10th century, Solomon’s Temple is not implausible to imagine. Although, it may not have been as grand as 1 Kings 6-7 describes it.
        • Palace-Temple combinations existed:
          • palace-temple combinations from the 9th-8th centuries
            • Zincirli and Tell Halaf in Syria
            • These complexes support the possibility of a palace-temple complex constructed by Solomon.
          • Canaanite palace-temple complexes remind us of the lack of distinction between state and religion.
            • King appointed priests, at least for the main place of worship
            • King also acted as a religious official.
            • Offerings to gods were often claimed by the kings.
            • “royal and priestly structures served a crucial social role in both centralizing and legitimizing national ideology” (612).
              • While I completely agree with this, I do think that it needs to be nuanced. What distinguishes palace-temple complexes, and the god-king-priest relationship therein, in a West Semitic context from an East Semitic context? While there is overlap, I think that Sanders’ book may help to clarify this issue. It will help me to localize Israelite-Judean religion.
          • Temples and Everyday Life
            • Temples indicated signs of wealth among Canaanite, Judean, and Israelite rulers.
              • Less than Egypt or Mesopotamia, of course.
            • Highly stratified society (speculative).
            • What can we learn from these temples, though?
              • For actual religious practice, it is tough.
              • By looking at what was offered, though, we can understand what sort of things were given as offering to the gods, or god.
              • Object recovered at Tel Mevorakh (Strata XI-X, c. 1400-1200) were divided into three categories
                • votives or costly gifts
                • vessels for food and drink offerings.
                  • Like stone cup, mortar, mini libation table.
                • impliments for liturgical function
                  • Like snake figure, dagger, arrowheads
              • Other stuffs, like seals, bead, pendant, game pieces, jar, pots, bowls, platters, chalices, cups, etc. all seem to be evidence of what was offered at a public shrine.
                • Likely to El, Asherah, Ball, or ‘Anat; by this period Yahweh is not a deity in the region.
                • Still, these offerings from a LBA help us to understand what constituted religious worship in the heritage of ancient Judean-Israel religion.

Brief notes on Legal and Social Institutions in Canaan and Ancient Israeli, by Hector Avalos

  • Priests often served as judges (622).
  • Priests usually inherited their position (623).
  • There were very structured temple hierarchies (623).
    • This is shared in Phoenician and Hebrew texts (623).
    • Each one expresses the hierarchies in a different way (623).

Brief notes on Ahab of Israel and Jehoshaphat of Judah by Joseph Blenkinsopp

  • Bethel and Dan were set up by Jereboam to rival Jerusalem (1 Kings 12:26-33), (p. 1315).
  • Imagery of a golden, young bull, familiar from Canaanite iconography, “either represented Yahweh or served as his pedestal” (1316).
  • Like mentioned to entries ago, there was a large place for sacrifice at Tel Dan, constructed by Jeroboam I – the Omrids expanded it (1317).
  • Sanctuary at the fortress of Arad had two incense altars and a sort of holy of holies.
    • Used in the 9th and 8th centuries – abandoned at the end of the 8th century (1317).
  • According to HB, Ahab build an Asherah. Likewise, the HB notes four hundred prophets of Asherah (1 Kings 16:33, 18:19). Even with a strong Yahwistic zeal, cult of Asherah still flourished until the destruction of Jerusalem and beyond. It was considered acceptable worship alongside Yahweh.
    • Cf. Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscriptions and Khirbat al-Qom. These both attest to a strong relation between cult of Yahweh and Asherah.
      • Blenkinsopp translates it as, “I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his Asherah” (1317).
      • May be dated as early as 10th century. Z. Meshel dates it to as early as the second half of the 9th century.
    • In neighboring regions, like Melqart of Tyre and Chemosh of Moab, they were worshiped with a female consort (1318). Thus, for ancient Israelite-Judean religion to do so is not unheard of or surprising.
  • Samaria ostraca include elements of Yahweh. They wrote YW, “corresponding to the Judean YHW” (1318), 8 for Baal, some with El, Gad, and Bes.
  • In the midst of all this, there were extremist cults dedicated to the cult of Yahweh alone.
    • Of course, this is questionable. Perhaps these cults were monolatry. Eventually, though, they began to turn into an early form of monotheism in order to retain their ethnic identity (Mark Smith and others).
  • With the rise of Omri, king of Israelite, sought closer ties with Phoenician cities through marriage and peace.
    • This was not received well because it broke customs and traditions (1318).

Notes on “Civilizations of the Ancient Near East”

In my spare time, I am working on writing an article about ancient Israelite and Judean religion. This, of course, is a very difficult thing to do. It is difficult because saying something about ancient Israel comes with a lot of modern baggage. So, these are some notes from a large encyclopedia, Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. One thing which I’d like to draw out is that even when we do speak of ancient Israelite religion, we must remember that religion and politics operated in the same social sphere. Communicating this historical reality will be one of the greatest challenges in writing this definition/article.

Administration of the State in Canaan and Ancient Israel (Vol. 1-2, Gosta W. Ahlstrom, pp. 587-603)

  • c. 1500-1000 BCE, Palestine and Transjordan was primarily a mixture of West Semitic ethnic groups.
  • 12th-11th centuries see the increase of Canaanite settlements
    • Canaanite is not an ethnic term, just about those who live in the country.
  • Majority of Israelites were originally “Canaanites”, part of that diverse group people who settled in the region.
  • KEY: Idea of twelve-tribe is a “historiographic reconstruction” (588).
    • When writing, be sure to define this.
    • Accoridn got WIliam Foxwell Albright, history through the Bible “is a pious fiction.”
    • NOTE FOR SELF: This is a good way to problematize how we look at ancient Israelite religion in the first place. It demands that we be aware the HB reflect old tradition, though usually not completely accurately.
  • Government was a tribal system; Ahlstrom claims that no institution of elected official developed. Of course. But we need to remember that as a tribal system, they did have a voice, often time over other kings in a West Semitic context. Cf. Sanders, The Invention of Hebrew.
  • We could also see the old rulers as theoocratic rulers, but this is problematic as the term carries too much negative baggage when presenting to a large audience of general readers.
  • “To promote and support the ruler’s position in such as development, a kingship ideology anchored the ruler and his power in the divine will, and thus legitimized his might” (590).
    • Cf. Ps. 2:7, 45:6 (King is addressed as elohim), 89:26 (adoption formula for a god adopting a king); Is. 9:6-7 (who will inherit the dominion of Yahweh), etc.
  • Broadly speaking, this is shared throughout ANE (591).
    • King Keret was son of the god El, Assyrian king was the son of a god. Esarhaddon is the son of Ninlil and Shamash. Shulgi, a Sumerian king, is the son of the goddess Ninsun. etc.
  • In a West Semitic context especially, one individual god was usually the main god (591). He writes, “The temple was an expression of the deitiy’s cosmos and domain. Nation and religion were the same. The reality was that in order for a nation to be ruled and governed according to the deity’s will, it had to have a “deputy” divinity choisen, namely, the king (591).”
    • Cf. Sanders on this for more details unique to a West Semitic context.
  • Theological kingship was part of ancient Israel’s heritage as it emerged as a unique and long lasting contending among the various ethnic groups categorized as Canaanites. (Loosely based off of 592; I expanded the details the words of Gosta).
  • Enthronement of a king was a religious activity (593). It involved the following:
    • Selecting a king and proclaiming affirmation of king via religious oracle, anointing, victory, ride a donky to place of investitutre, born of or adopted as the son of Yahweh, proclaimed with eternal dynasty, people acclaim, and a banquet!
  • King was in charge of building a temple, as demonstrated through various inscriptions throughout Syro-Palestine (596).
    • Panamu of Sam’al, Azatiwata of the Karatepe inscription, Mesha of Moab, Solomon, kings of Israel.
    • This temple building, a religious and political activity, had economic implications. Land was bought, people were hired, and animals were sold for sacrifice (596).
  • State Cult (597-598)
    • Responsible for liturgical contact between deity, the foundation of the nation.
    • Again, “religion and state were one.”
    • Accordingly, the “king had supreme authority over the state religion and its cult” (597); however, that doesn’t mean others had a significant say in matters of religion.
    • Roles of state cult, in a West Semitic context, on behalf of people:
      • Offer sacrifices and burn incense
        • 1 Samuel 15, 1 Kings 3 (one thousand burnt offerings), 1 King 9:25 (Sacrifice 3 times per year.
      • Temple building and cult paraphernalia
        • 1 Kings 6-8 (Solomon builds temple), 1 Kings 16:32 (Ahab puts up religious symbol of a Phoenician Baal.
      • Ordering cultic meetings (?)
        • Seems unsubstantiated.
      • Organize and run the cult.
        • Jeroboam did this at Bethel and Dan (1 Kings 12)
  • “Realizing that kingship would not be restored, the only way to retain the kingship concept was to divorce it from an earthly king and, in agreement with an old ideology, proclaim Yahweh as king, ruling no longer throuh his deputy the eartlhly king but through the priesthood. In this way one could come to grips with the idea of being a people not governed by an indigenous king. The theogcratic ideal or dogma became anchored in a remote time in order to acquire the prestige of something primeval” (602).


Over the next week or two, I will take notes for the following chapters: Palaces and Temples in Canaan and Ancient Israel by William G. Dever (605-614), Legal and Social Institutions in Canaan and Ancient Israel by Hector Avalos (615-631), and Private Life in Canaan and Ancient Israel by Mayer I. Gruber (633-648). Part VIII of these volumes also have five other important chapters: Myth and Mythmaking in Canaan and Ancient Israel y Mark Smith (of course), Theology, Priests, and Worship in Canaan and Ancient IsraelDeath and the Afterlife in Canaanite and Hebrew ThoughtWitchcraft, Magic, and Diviniation in Canaan and Ancient Israel, and Prophecy and Apocalyptics in the Ancient Near EastArt and Architecture in Canaan and Ancient Israel may also be a helpful article to read.

Although this is a lot of reading for a single, short work on ancient Israelite and Judean religion, it is imperative that an article (especially like this) be thorough. At the same time, it is important to be able to present the nuances while, at the same time, presenting the history of ancient Israelite religion in an understandable and comprehensible way.

“A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion” by Gary Burge

Many thanks to IVP for providing me with a copy of A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion by Gary Burge.

Brief Summary

For the sake of those who desire to read “A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion”, I’ve abstained from producing an in-depth summary that spoils significant points of the plotline.

Gary Burge’s most recent publication envelops the reader into the cognitive environment of 1st century Palestine. His historical fiction, with small excursuses on specific topics relating to the story, follows the life of a Roman centurion named Appius and his slave Tullus. Captured at Emesa, Tullus quickly becomes Appius’ most trusted slave within his familia. Upon return to Appius’ villa, the Galica legion, of which Appius is the primus, moves to Dura-Europos to provide reinforcements for another legion. After a successful battle against the Parthians, Appius is severely injured, resulting in the loss of his position as primus and transitioning to Caesara, from where Pontus Pilate deems him leader in Galilee to collect taxes. In Galilee, several events unfold resulting in better diplomatic relations between Jews and Romans, which are strained by the various forms of extremism for both people groups. Eventually, he trusts the Jews enough to rely on Yeshua bar Josef to heal an injured servant of his.


               Too often scholarship distances itself from emotion and the living, breathing human being. Burge does the opposite and animates characters in a way that grips the reader’s attention. Even though the book was an easy read, the believable nature of his characters resulted in my own desire to journey with them. Much of this was accomplished by his willingness to include the violence, gore, and sexuality of 1st century Rome. Stylistically, he wisely avoids presenting Roman life as a polemic over and against 1st century Jewish beliefs. While there are clearly moments where a division is present, they are never present because of a polemic. In fact, polemically oriented writing may have been difficult because Burge introduces a wide spectrum of 1st century thought. These divisions are present because many distinct social groups, even distinct groups within Roman and Jewish cultures, clash. According to Burge, he “wanted the main character, a centurion, to seem real: he is a violent man, he drinks heavily, he has a concubine, and he doesn’t mind visiting a brothel” (IVP Academic Q&A with Gary M. Burge). Burge does this well and it is the strongest point of his story.

My own critique is more of wish than anything else. His fiction is brief and excellent as a supplementary book to New Testament courses. But there are many areas where I was expecting more information about topics. The wish was not for more exposition, which turns a well-written story into a confused textbook, but for the inclusion of more characters that could have helped develop a more comprehensive view of ancient Roman society. This would be a challenge and likely result in a far thicker and more complicated plotline though. Regardless of the points of which I hoped for more detail and characters, his work accomplishes what it set out to do and constructs a truthful and lifelike image of 1st century Palestine/Rome.


               Praiseworthy for the style and believability for his work, Burge’s brief historical fiction is absolutely essential for a variety of audiences. For a layperson seeking to grasp 1st century Roman and Jewish culture, Burge allows them to experience the world personally and realistically without the mundane nature of a textbook. And his brief excursuses allow a basic introduction to the 1st century world. For students studying the New Testament, Burge provides an easy to read introduction that is full of valuable information necessary to proper contextualized readings of the New Testament. And even for the active scholar, A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion is an easy read that allows for a relaxing and enjoyable experience as the world of antiquity is again made alive. And I thoroughly and completely enjoyed the read, practically unable to put the book down. Overall, the believability of Burge’s story and introductory nature of it make for an outstanding reading experience that should be experienced by all students, scholars, and laypersons.

Click here to purchase A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion by Gary Burge through my Amazon Associate store.

“The Shadow of the Galilean” by Gerd Theissen

In The Shadow of the Galilean, Gerd Theissen tells a fictional story through a historical lens of 1st century culture in Palestine. The book is focused on examining how Jesus’ message was understood in his greater context. Similar to The Lost Letters of Pergamum by Bruce W. Longenecker, Theissen avoids the typical textbook feeling of history by presenting all of the historical facts and understanding through the narration of a character named Andreas. Within the book, Andreas addresses 1st century groups like the Essenes, Zealots, and Pharisees. Additionally, he clearly shows how 1st century politics could have easily taken Jesus’ message to be subversive in aim of stopping Roman rule. Yet, Theissen is also able to show Andreas’ character interacting with people to bring out the more theologically focused possibilities of viewing Jesus message. In other words, he shows the sociological aspects of the religious and political sentiments and how the two elements intertwine.

Thessen’s creation is innovative and effective in communicating Jesus’ context in light of 1st century Judaism and politics. The narrative style allows the reader to partake in a story for absorbing information rather than listing off theological and historical facts. In light of one of my most recent posts, The Essential Story, I truly do appreciate his effort to write in such a fashion. The simplicity of the read and clear explanations allow for the reader to remain in the story and not become lost in the complicated nature of history. The history is shown as something that was a reality for people who knew of Jesus and that Jesus’ actions affected the entire region.

While his presentation was creative and effective, it did lack skill in the conversational realism. Because it is a historical-fiction narrative, there should be an aspect of realism in conversation. Unfortunately, the dialogue, a core to Theissen’s work, is choppy and unrealistic. At moments, it feels as though he copied facts from a textbook into a narrative dialogue and considered it good. While it makes sense to do that, it does make the dialogue uninteresting in regard to reflecting how human beings speak.

In conclusion, The Shadow of the Galilean is a good choice for a person who dislikes reading any sort of non-fiction historical book. However, there are better options for a person looking to understand the 1st century context of Jesus. That is not to say that it is terrible. On the contrary, it is a fantastically written and does well in presenting the historical context. The only issue is the unrealistic dialogue that never fully allows the reader to enter into and partake of the 1st century world that Theissen illustrates through words. Aside from that, Theissen’s work, The Shadow of the Galilean, is an excellent read that should be taken seriously by any person seeking to understand Jesus’ 1st century context, especially for a person who has not done much studying in that time period.

Click here to purchase The Shadow of the Galilean by Gerd Theissen