Sunday, July 18, 2010

What If? Not Jerusalem but Samaria is the birthplace of the Bible

In between the depressive moments and my community/other commitments I've been reflecting a bit on the history of biblical religion or more precisely on how biblical religion and the corpus of texts that generate it got going. As part of that reflecting I had a little 'what if' moment that I want to share here. What if Jerusalem and its Temple are not the site for the origins of the bible scriptures but somewhere else? Samaria, perhaps?

Before I spell it out I want to first off reprise the standard, dare one say 'traditional', understanding of how the texts we call biblical/Old Testament came to be. In the Bibles used by Christians and Jews, whatever else one can say, Jerusalem and its Temple are so very central. One could say the Old Testament collections are really arguing about who should be in control of Jerusalem and its Temple. These arguments occur again in the New Testament collections which go on to say that the days of Jerusalem are over and that the Christian community gathered together is the New Temple, a Temple of the Spirit to replace the Temple of Stone. But that Temple of Stone was in Jerusalem and the new Christian regime is signified by a New Jerusalem that comes down from heaven, a New Jerusalem with no need for a Temple of stone.

This scriptural centrality of Jerusalem is such that in the various hypotheses of the origins of these texts, it's always assumed that the biblical enterprise begins in Jerusalem. The classic example is the documentary hypothesis of the origins and composition of the Torah, the 5 books of Moses, at the heart of Tanakh and Old Testament. The first version of the Torah, the famous book of J, is composed and written by the mythical Yahwist in Jerusalem sometime around when David or Solomon were supposed to have reigned. Deuteronomy, the D or Deuteronomist component, is likewise believed to have been composed in Jerusalem, and 'traditionally' understood to be the scroll of the Law found in the Temple in Josiah's day, prompting him to undertake a major reform and centralisation of the cult in the last days before the Babylonian conquest. Post-Babylon the Torah collection is further revised and edited by priests in Jerusalem, the P or Priestly component. At some stage, however, following the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel/Samaria, refugees from the north brought their own traditions which were also incorporated into the growing Torah corpus, the E or Elohist component, at some stage before the days of Josiah. The north then is ancillary to the whole process which is understood as being located in Jerusalem. Biblical minimalists, too, locate the entire process of Torah composition in a Persian or Hellenistic period Jerusalem.

The curious thing, though, is that there is no clear reference Jerusalem or its holy mountain, Zion, anywhere in the Torah, with the possible exception of the story of Melchizedek of Salem in Genesis 14, to which I will return later. On the other hand, various northern sanctuaries and even the Samaritan holy mountain, Ha Gerizim, are both present and important sites in the Torah. Mt Gerizim and its twin or sister peak, Mt Ebal, appear in Deuteronomy itself (11.29, 27.12), a text generally understood as representing the platform or core agenda of the Jerusalem-only trajectory in the scriptures and presumably of a Jerusalem based party in the period of composition. In Deuteronomy and again in Joshua (8.33) Mt Gerizim is clearly a site of considerable significance for the Israelites, a place of meeting for cultic obligations laid down by Moses himself.

As for Melchizedek, while nowadays it's generally accepted that the Genesis story is a reference to Jerusalem, Samaritan tradition understands Salem to have been at Shechem at the foot of Mt Gerizim. Curiously both in early Christianity and early Judaism Salem is identified with Shechem and there are stories of Melchizedek as a king of the north and not of Jerusalem. In part, this identification of Salem and Shechem is made possible by the Hebrew of Genesis 33.18, 'and Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem', the word for 'safely' is salem. Consequently, the Latin, Greek and Syriac versions of the text say 'and Jacob came to Salem, the city of Shechem'. Samaritans identify Mt Gerizim with Mt Moriah the site where Abraham took Isaac for sacrifice; Jews of course identify it with Mt Zion. The Binding of Isaac is not historical, of course, but a myth deriving from ancient Temple theologies of sacrifice, so the location of any (central) temple will likewise be the location for the events of the myth (just as, for Muslims, Mecca is the site for Ibrahim's binding of Ismail, the same mythic pattern).

It used to be thought, following Josephus, that the Temple in Jerusalem was the first to be rebuilt, in the Persian period, with the Samaritans only building theirs on Mt Gerizim in the time of Alexander the Great. Archeology has given the lie to that. It would appear that the re/building of both Temples began at about the same time early in the Persian period. Likewise it would appear from the evidence of the ancient Jewish community at Elephantine in southern Egypt, that both Jerusalem and Samaria were recognised as authoritative centres for Jews (or would it be better to designate these communities as Yahweh worshippers?).

What's been most interesting for me in my reading is to discover that, geographically, the northern regions of Samaria are much richer country for farming and other activities, than the southern regions of Judah/Yehud. The imaginative centrality of Jerusalem obscures that fact. Judah began as a poor client kingdom of the much richer Israel/Samaria/House of Omri in the north. And it would seem that the Persian province of Yehud and its capital, Jerusalem, were likewise much poorer than the province of Samaria to the north. So to return to my what if, what if the origins of the biblical process lay in Samaria, and specifically, the Temple at Mt Gerizim, and not Jerusalem. What if the great stories of Eden, Noah, Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Bilhah and Zilpah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers and sister, Moses and Miriam and Aaron and Joshua, have their origins entirely in the north and not the south? What if the process of scripture/Torah composition began at Ha Gerizim but expanded into a bigger collaborative exercise incorporating the other sanctuaries of 'Israelite' religion. I have been thinking for a while that one of the factors important to the transformation of ancient Palestinian religion into Judaism(s), Samaritanism(s?), Christianity, Gnosticism, Islam, Bahai etc, was the critical question, what does a cult focused on a local king-priest (a Melchizedek) do when the local kings have gone, to be replaced by a distant imperial ruler of a world empire, in which once local cults have to face realities of globalisation and diaspora. In part this process, may well have been initiated by the colonisers, the imperial power itself (hence the generally positive image of the Persians in the Hebrew scriptures). But I think that the colonised took advantage of the process making it a sort of pas de deux, or even a pas de trois.

Somewhere along the way, there was a falling out between north and south. Perhaps the centralising logic of Deuteronomy, prompted a radical pre-emptive and defensive strike on the part of Jerusalem against its wealthier and more prestigious partner to the north. So Jerusalem set out to further develop the story but with Jerusalem at the heart of it all., not Ha Gerizim and, furthermore, to traduce all those sacred centres of the north that are so important to the sacred story of Genesis and even Joshua. That way Jerusalem successfully resisted control or worse from the north. Or maybe Jerusalem's motive was a far more mundane matter of cashing in on the pilgrim trade. Jerusalem and Yehud is poor and pilgrims bring money. We have plenty of examples in the ancient world of Temples with an international appeal. The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus was one such rich and internationally popular sanctuary. And certainly Jerusalem has known many periods of prosperity all thanks to its centrality in the religious imagination of countless numbers of people.

Sadly however, the Temple at Ha Gerizim lost out in the struggle and was finally destroyed at the behest of a Jerusalem high priest and de facto king, almost 130 years before Christ. But the people whose faith was centred on that northern sanctuary held on to their scriptures, the Torah of Moses. Their numbers would gradually dwindle in the face of Roman (the Samaritans joined with the Jews in the first Jewish War against Rome 66-72CE), Christian (the Samaritans rebelled unsuccessfully against the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire several times in the 5th and 6th centuries and were brutally suppressed by Emperor Justinian) and Muslim power (in the centuries of Muslim rule they suffered periodic forced conversions), to the tiny handful that they are. But the greatest tragedy is that they would never be credited with that immense achievement in human religious imagination (and to which they cling tenaciously) the Torah, the 5 Books of Moses.

Of course, it might not have been like that but what if...

1 comment:

  1. This is a really interesting subject. What if Jesus was a Samaritan? How would His life be like?