Sands of time;Subject of the week;Reference books

30th April 1999 at 01:00
THE OXFORD HISTORY OF THE BIBLICAL WORLD. Edited by Michael D Coogan. Oxford University Press pound;30.

In 1986 archaeologists unearthed a preserved first-century fishing boat in Galilee - exactly like one in which Jesus would have sailed. We now also know that the Jewish return from Babylon dates not just from 539BC but from October 29 of that year. And more than 2,000 years ago, King Darius built a Suez canal.

These are just three of many recent findings that illuminate this anthology of a dozen scholarly but rewarding essays by (mainly) American academics. While acknowledging the Bible as a valuable if partial source, they also challenge some generally accepted beliefs. For example, despite the efforts of a local tourist industry, we cannot prove which is the Mount Sinai of Ten Commandments fame. King David may well be no more than a mythological character.

And if the first leader of the Christian church was actually James, the brother of Jesus, what does this say about the brothers' home life and their mother Mary's virginity?

Although occasionally a little technical and detailed for the general reader, the book presents an impressive commentary on the history, politics and sociology of the lands of the Bible from prehistory up to the Roman Empire's adoption of the Christian faith.

Especially fascinating are the cross-cultural connections. The would-be murderer of the infant Jesus, King Herod, had been an ally of Cassius and Brutus following their assassination of Julius Caesar. He later switched allegiance to Mark Antony despite being on difficult terms with the latter's new lover, Cleopatra. Another interesting parallel is explored in the conjunction of the Christian proclamation of Jesus as divine at a time when coins bearing the head of Emperor Augustus were in circulation describing him as "Son of God".

Professor Coogan's contributors are not afraid to be direct. The Israelites, wandering through the desert on their exodus from Egypt, are labelled "tiresome and faithless" as "they murmur, whine, and rebel constantly". Nor is this a book for biblical literalists. For example, as Carol Redmount points out in her essay "Israel in and out of Egypt", the first five books of the Old Testament can hardly be the work of Moses himself, as conservatives maintain. If this were really so, she suggests with some logic, why should Moses have been given the unique privilege of reporting the circumstances and aftermath of his own death?

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