Becoming God: walking the thin line between myth and history – Fellows’ seminar by Christian Frevel

30 April 2024

“My research focuses on the first half of the first millennium BCE. I’m asking what is the history behind the story? Where and when did Yahwism arise and how did it develop? How does ‘biblical religion’ relate to Israelite and Judean religious practice? As well as how can we integrate the extrabiblical evidence? I’m also testing a new theoretical contextualisation by interlocuting with a post-colonial theorem,” said Christian Frevel of the Faculty of Catholic Theology, Ruhr-University Bochum, Germany.

“At first glance, it may seem unusual that God has a history and is part of history, especially when departing from a standpoint of faith. From a religious-studies perspective, however, this is not something special,” added Frevel. “In the Christian-Jewish context the truth of the Bible was unquestioned for a long time, and therefore the biblical account was considered historically accurate, at least in its basic outlines. However, if we detach ourselves from the biblical narrative, the picture looks quite different!”

STIAS Fellow Christian Frevel during his seminar on 18 April 2024

Frevel looks at the biblical story and compares it to the evidence on the ground including studying inscriptions, architecture, architectural models, figurines, and seals. Where there are discrepancies between the biblical narrative and other evidence, he aims to analyse the reasons why the stories differ and the intent.

“Most of the biblical text was written starting only in the 8th century,” he explained. “We need to understand the intention – why tell a story from hundreds of years before?”

A well-known example is that of Solomon and the Solomonic Gate at Gezer which, according to the archaeological record, was built at least 200 years later than indicated in the Bible. If Solomon did not build it, why does the Bible ascribe this to him?

Frevel explained that, according to the Bible, God’s home and origin was at Mount Sinai and Moses revealed him to the enslaved Israelites in Egypt. In the second millennium BCE, he entered the Promised Land with the 12 tribes of Israel through the Exodus. After turbulent beginnings, the centre of Yahwism became Jerusalem, where Solomon built a magnificent temple. This peak was followed by a period of decline until the Babylonian exile.

“However,” noted Frevel, “the biblical story that YHWH is not an indigenous deity of the Levant, but was connected originally to the ‘Sinai’ and ‘Midian’ in North-Arabia is less reliable if all extrabiblical evidence is missing. Sinai as place of origin cannot be proven, nor that YHWH is originally a North-Arabian deity.”

“YHWH and the Exodus are seen as historically and traditionally inseparable,” he continued. “But, there are no extrabiblical traces of ‘Israel’ in Egypt, nor the Exodus or wilderness journey, or the figure of Moses as mediator of Yahwism. The earliest Exodus narrative is dated in the 8th century BCE.”

In the biblical version early Israel forms a tribal society characterised by a common origin and religion with the settlement area of the Israelites corresponding to the area in which YHWH is worshipped. “However, the ‘12 Tribe Israel’ is a much later literary construct,” said Frevel. “Judged from settlement patterns and the timespan of the settlement period, there is no common ancestry of the early settlers in the Iron I (12th -11th century) and also no signs of tribal Yahwism. By contrast there is lots of diversity in the Iron IIA.”

“Yahwism is also part-and-parcel of the Southern Levantine religious diversity. There are no fundamental differences between the religion of Israel and Judah and the so-called Canaanite religion which is more or less a scholarly construct,” he continued. “There is also no extrabiblical evidence of a tribal union spanning the whole land that would have been unified by genealogical cohesion and a unifying religion in the Iron I and early Iron IIA. We have neither traces of early tribal Yahwism nor of centralisation before the 7th century.”

The Bible also indicates that David brought Yahwe to Jerusalem and made him the god of the united monarchy. The building of the temple in Jerusalem by Solomon is an expression of a centralised national religion. “However, that there was a United Monarchy at all is highly debated. Jerusalem was if at all a city state with a small hinterland. The temple is a relic from the earlier city, not built by Solomon and YHWH was introduced in Jerusalem only in the second half of the 8th century.”

Frevel explained that the religion of the early Israelites did not develop from a uniform beginning but rather evolved from regional diversity to a ‘national’ level with the driving force political power rather than revelation. The bottomline is that Yahwism only gradually asserted itself through fusions, superimpositions and identifications. Frevel describes this process as creolisation.

“In summary, the earliest extrabiblical evidence of Yahwism dates to the 9th century BCE, and was initially associated with the royal house in Samaria, located in the northern part of the land. Over time, Yahwism gradually became the official religion in the southern part of Israel, specifically in Jerusalem, due to the political supremacy of the kings of Israel in overpowering little Judah. The development is characterised by regional diversity, transformation and change, so that a static picture of the religion of Israel is inadequate.”

He also noted that the religion of Israel and Judah remained polytheistic for a long time. YHWH had a small group of companions and a wife, Asherah, not only on the periphery, but in official religion. “This was devalued in older research as heterodoxy, mixture, or syncretism,” he said. “Monotheism is an idea of 19th century philosophers, not a biblical idea. In the Bible there were many Gods but only one real to you. There is a national and colonial perspective to the idea of a one-and-only God.”

“Even the Commandment ‘Thou shall not worship other Gods’ implies there were other Gods. The idea of Oneness is not in the Hebrew Bible.”

The evidence for these conclusions includes inscribed artifacts from Khirbet el Qom, Kuntillet Ajrud and Hirbet Bet Lay sites; the Gezer calendar – originally believed to contain the oldest Hebrew inscription; and, the Mesha Stele or Moabite Stone which contains the first attestation to the name of YHWH.

“There are no inscriptions before the 9th century BCE,” said Frevel. “The earliest tangible extrabiblical traces lead to the royal court in Samaria, not in Jerusalem. This likely shows that YHWH is a latecomer in Jerusalem.” “Yahwism started in the monarchic period and was tied to ruling dynasties and kings.  There was no stable territorial region – it changed with rule. The religioscapes of Israelites and Juda are characterised by high plurality and religion was only standardised by the middle 8th century when centralisation was part of state building.”

Valuing hybridity

Frevel believes therefore that there is a need for a new explanatory model that takes up the dynamics of development and values hybridity positively. In this he believes creolisation is a useful model particularly as described by writer, poet, philosopher and literary critic from Martinique -Édouard Glissant. Glissant is one of the most influential figures in Caribbean thought and cultural commentary who significantly contributed to the concept of creolisation.

Frevel explained that Glissant’s ideas of creolisation bring together the local, regional and global, and encompasses fluidity and change. “He also emphasised diversity as the human spirit striving for cross-cultural relationships, without universalist transcendence.”

“I believe creolisation can be a model for complex cultural dynamics and confluences that can bring together power relations, change and hybridisation. Creolisation combines local, regional and global aspects of change and can recognise what has become in its integrative and demarcative power at the same time.”

And does this research have repercussions for today’s understanding of religion? Frevel explained that acknowledging religious evolution as a richness and, at the same time, keeping the development of religion open is a way to less exclusivism and more contextualised truth.

“We need plurality and different voices when reading the Bible – no text has just one meaning,” he added. “The historical approach must not challenge personal belief that can still build on the biblical narratives. Take the topic of liberation. The Bible remains a story of liberation that is not straightforward, worthwhile to follow for oneself, but equally costly.”

“More awareness of other can lead to more openness in inter-religious dialogue and more openness to accept the views of others in many contemporary issues,” he concluded.


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph:  Noloyiso Mtembu





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