04 April 2011

Sent him forth from the garden of Eden

Garden of Eden, by Hieronymus Bosch
Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou is a Senior Lecturer in the University of Exeter's Department of Theology and Religion, and has recently presented a three-part series on BBC2 entitled The Bible's Buried Secrets, in which she discusses modern interpretations of traditional Biblical beliefs from a revisionist viewpoint.

There's something greatly encouraging about the prospect of a sympathetic historian unfettered by particular doctrines approaching Biblical history, rather than attempting to view it through the lens of one particular variety of faith or another. Certainly, she does have a particular doctrine that informs her own viewpoint, as the Daily Mail took great pains to point out, inserting the word 'atheist' before her name every time it's mentioned in their articles. But perhaps an atheist is best placed to stand back from the centuries of dogma that have coloured religious scholarship and ask sensible questions about the weight of supporting evidence behind certain claims. And the three topics she addressed in her series were fairly impressive ones to tackle.

In the first episode Stavrakopoulou asked if the weight of historical evidence actually backed up the Bible and modern Judaic scholarship's assertion that King David united Israel and Judea to rule a legendary empire in the ancient Holy Land. She talked to various revisionist scholars who question whether this empire ever existed at all, and who point out that the documentary evidence for such an empire is extremely limited. This might not seem like much of a case, given the length of time that has elapsed since the events were supposed to have occurred, but Stavrakopoulou argued that other powers that existed at around the same time, including the well-known Philistines, who occupied what is today modern Gaza, have much more evidence of their existence. Another scholar she interviewed suggested that some research has shown that at the time tradition holds that David built and ruled his empire, the lands under his control were actually barely populated, and if that was true, there simply wasn't the manpower to create a great empire of powerful armies and grand temples and palaces.

Questioning the validity of legends surrounding King David naturally goes to the heart of Judaism and the modern state of Israel, for whom David is the core of its founding mythology. Naturally, in the course of a one hour TV documentary you don't expect to be able to show enough argument to accurately weigh up intricate details of complex expert evidence, but I certainly got the impression that someone advancing an academic theory that undermined that founding myth in Israel itself would certainly find the going hard, both academically and politically.

The second episode addressed controversial theories surrounding the ancient shift from polytheism - the worship of many gods - to monotheism, which in Judaism meant that Yahweh, known to us as God, was the one and only deity. This unique selling point became a central tenet of Judaism and later Christianity. Stavrakopoulou examined Old Testament evidence for a fuzzier definition of monotheism in ancient times, in which other gods coexisted in people's understanding of divinity alongside Yahweh. And, more controversially, she argued that one of these gods, the mother goddess Ashareh, could have been considered at the time to be the wife of Yahweh. If organised religions had not shunted Ashareh off to the margins of theology, and indeed attempted to erase her name from history, then Stavrakopoulou suspects the history of humanity and in particular the relationship between the sexes would have been radically different. It's an appealing feminist recasting of ancient history, and it poses some interesting counterfactual ideas.

Stavrakopoulou saved her biggest claim for the third and final instalment of The Bible's Buried Secrets. In that episode, broadcast last week, she argued that centuries of religious tradition have misled believers and non-believers regarding the location of the mythical Garden of Eden, from which God cast forth Adam and Eve in disgrace. She made the case that in the ancient world a garden was both a regal status symbol in which rulers displayed their command over nature, and also divine enclaves: the people believed them to be the literal homes of gods on earth. The kings of men maintained their royal gardens to maintain both the splendour of their reigns but also to signal their vital connection to the holy entities worshipped by the masses.

To illustrate her point, Stavrakopoulou pointed to an Assyrian wall panel relief in the collections of the British Museum, which she believes depicts a contemporary ideal of a divine garden. It's an Assyrian work from the royal palace of King Ashurbanipal (reigned 669-630 BC), and it depicts a wooded hill, adorned with multitudes of trees and bushes and fed by the waters emerging from an aqueduct:


Assyrian relief, 6th c. BC, © British Museum
Moreover, Stavrakopoulou argued that there was a very real event that could have informed the Old Testament Eden myth. The First Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest site in the Jewish faith, has been described as follows:
Its walls were lined with cedar, on which were carved figures of cherubim, palm-trees, and open flowers, which were overlaid with gold. Chains of gold further marked it off from the Holy of Holies. The floor of the Temple was of fir-wood overlaid with gold. The door-posts, of olive-wood, supported folding-doors of fir. The doors of the Holy of Holies were of olive-wood. On both sets of doors were carved cherubim, palm-trees, and flowers, all being overlaid with gold (1 Kings 6:15 et seq.)
In other words, the interior decoration of King Solomon's Temple was that of a luxurious garden. It also acted as the focal point for the earthly manifestation of the Jewish god. But it didn't last. 

In the 6th century BC the Kingdom of Judah was a tributary of the mighty Babylonian Empire, with a Judean, Zedekiah, ruling as the vassal of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. Zedekiah entered into an anti-Babylonian allegiance with Egypt and refused to pay tribute to Nebuchadnezzar, which led to an 18 month siege of Jerusalem. The city fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC, and was devastated by the victorious army. The Temple itself, the holiest site in the Jewish faith, was destroyed, Zedekiah was taken to Babylon and the Kingdom of Judea came to an end. Could this, then, have been the inspiration for the biblical stories of the Garden of Eden? A foolish king keeps a divine garden to house the spirit of his people's god, but through a reckless decision he brings a great calamity to Judea and is cast out by an all-powerful and vengeful overlord.  

I had previously wondered if the story of the Garden of Eden was derived from the earliest pre-historic memories of the shift from nomadic hunter-gathering to settled village life, with all its new rules and obligations that some people must have failed to get accustomed to. Or perhaps it was just a simple metaphor for the Babylonian captivity, in which the Jews were cast out of their homeland and exiled far afield. (For which we are indebted, because it brought us a Boney M hit). Whatever its origin, for many centuries the story has been used to reinforce mankind's fall from grace. But for Dr Stavrakopoulou, the story of Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden by God isn't about the innate sinfulness of humanity. Rather, it's a tale that was passed down through the folklore of the Holy Land, and tells of the ultimate sacrifice made by a foolish king who betrayed his nation and brought suffering to his people. Here she sums her case, seated in front of the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount in Jerusalem:
For me, the ancient story about the Garden of Eden is not about the human condition. It's not saying that you and I are inherently bad. It's about the religion and politics of a particular people, two and a half thousand years ago. Some people may see this as reductive, that somehow I'm not embracing the full richness of the story. But I think the real motivation of the story is far more exciting. It allows us to engage with the real passions and anxieties of a people from long ago.

But does that mean the story doesn't speak to us anymore? Well, it might speak to Jews, Christians and Muslims more eloquently than we'd imagine. For people of faith, religion is a way of reconnecting with the divine, with the unity found in the Garden of Eden, but lost in the distant past. The idea of a lost paradise sits strongly in our collective psyche, and I think nowhere more so than here.

The place where the Dome of the Rock now stands is Jerusalem's most hallowed piece of real estate. It's where people believe Abraham nearly sacrificed his son, it's where the Jewish Temple stood, it's where Mohammed ascended to heaven. Thousands have fought for this patch of earth. It's the spot where God met man. This was heaven on earth. And this was the Garden of Eden. Is it any wonder that no-one wants to give it up?
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