A Thousand Words: St. Catherine’s Monastery

CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF ART / CC0 1.0 UNIVERSAL

Built in the sixth century near the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, the Monastery of St. Catherine is named for the early Christian martyr, Catherine of Alexandria, whose relics made the site a popular medieval pilgrimage destination. The monastery, however, was originally built to commemorate key events from the time of Moses and the Exodus. It purportedly encloses both the burning bush (Exodus 3) and the well where Moses first met his wife, Zipporah (Exodus 2), and it is believed to sit at the feet of both Mt. Sinai and Mt. Horeb (identified by local tradition with two separate peaks), where Moses received the tablets of the law (cf. Exodus 31–34; Deuteronomy 9).

This stunning lithograph, which shows St. Catherine’s Monastery with the towering heights of Mt. Sinai in the distance, is based on a watercolor sketch dated February 11, 1839, by David Roberts, a prolific Scottish painter famous for his many works depicting sites in and around the Holy Land. In the 1840s, lithographer Louis Haghe produced a collection of more than 250 prints of Roberts’s work, with this image appearing in the third volume.

Solomon’s Egyptian Bride: Artful Alliance or Biblical Boast?

TORONTONIAN / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

King Solomon was famous for his wisdom and, among other things, his many marital and extramarital relationships. His harem is numbered at 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3)—surely an exaggeration. According to 1 Kings 11, he also took foreign wives, some of whom, claim the biblical writers, led him to idolatry.

It is not remarkable that Solomon should ally himself with queens from the lands around him. Such had been royal policy for many kings throughout ancient Near Eastern history. Yet what was remarkable was for Solomon to have married into the Egyptian royal family (1 Kings 3:1).

What was so exceptional about it? Take as an example this exchange found in one of the Amarna Letters (c. 14th century BCE), written by the Babylonian king Kadashman-Enlil II to the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III, more than three centuries before the time of Solomon: “When I wrote to you about marrying your daughter, in accordance with your practice of not giving (a daughter), you wrote to me, ‘From time immemorial no daughter of the king of Egypt is given to anyone.’”1

According to biblical scholar Abraham Malamat, there is only one other possible example of an Egyptian princess being given to a foreign ruler—to King Nikmad of Ugarit, according to an Ugaritic document depicting the marriage. However, Malamat concludes that the king probably did not marry an actual daughter of the pharaoh but rather a member of the royal harem.2

The marriage alliance of Solomon and Egypt, therefore, was truly an exception. But did it actually happen, or was the claim simply an empty boast by the biblical writer? Let’s take a look at the biblical text and the evidence from archaeology.

First Kings 3 begins, “Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh, king of Egypt; he took Pharaoh’s daughter and brought her into the city of David, until he finished building his palace and the house of Yahweh and the wall around Jerusalem.” Although the writer seems more interested in Solomon’s building projects than the Egyptian alliance, the reference to Pharaoh has a touch of what one might call realpolitik. The references to Solomon’s signature building projects make it look like something other than empty boasting about a fabulous bride, since building the Temple, for instance, overshadows the brilliant match.

Fast forward to 1 Kings 9:24: “But Pharaoh’s daughter went up from the city of David to her own house that Solomon had built for her; then he built the Millo.” Again, the text mentions Pharaoh’s daughter mainly in terms of Solomon’s building projects. Alas, no one has identified the palace Solomon built for his Egyptian wife, but some scholars identify the Millo with the so-called Stepped Stone Structure in Jerusalem, while others believe it may refer to the ancient fortifications around the Gihon Spring.a

Now back up just a bit to 1 Kings 9:15–16: “This is the account of the forced labor that King Solomon conscripted to build the house of Yahweh and his own house, the Millo, and the wall of Jerusalem, Hazor, Megiddo, (and) Gezer. Pharaoh king of Egypt had gone up and captured Gezer and burned it down, had killed the Canaanites who lived in the city, and had given it as dowry to his daughter, Solomon’s wife.”

At the site of Gezer in the Judean foothills, archaeologists have indeed found city walls and a gate that date to the tenth century BCE, the time of Solomon. The dating is supported by the biblical text, as well as more recent radiocarbon evidence.3 It seems probable, therefore, that Solomon rebuilt and refortified the Canaanite city gifted to him by Pharaoh, just as the Bible suggests.

TODD BOLEN / BIBLEPLACES.COM

Which pharaoh was Solomon’s father-in-law? Since the text does not name him, it is not clear, but scholars think it was Pharaoh Siamun of the 21st Dynasty, or less probably, his successor, Psusennes II. We also are not given the name of Pharaoh’s daughter.

Why the Egyptian king chose to ally himself with Solomon is a matter of speculation. Since it happened early in Solomon’s reign, it may indicate that his father David had a successful reign, as the Book of Samuel claims. Egypt certainly had to deal with the fact that it no longer had an empire in the Levant. As a result, it may have been more willing to ally itself with Solomon. Upon Solomon’s death, however, Pharaoh Shoshenq I (biblical Shishak), who founded the 22nd Dynasty, flexed Egyptian muscle and devastated Gezer and several other southern Levantine towns in his famous campaign, which is attested in both Egyptian records and the biblical text (1 Kings 14:25–26).b The alliance between Solomon and Egypt was clearly short lived.

In conclusion, the biblical allusion to Pharaoh’s daughter as Solomon’s wife seems not to be an idle boast. Given 1 Kings 11, where foreign wives are the instrument of Solomon’s downfall, this is not altogether surprising. Different biblical books have differing agendas. In fact, the much later Book of Chronicles, which seeks only to glorify Solomon, omits any mention of Solomon’s downfall in the Book of Kings. Indeed, the Chronicler’s only mention of Pharaoh’s daughter uses her to show Solomon’s piety: “Solomon brought Pharaoh’s daughter from the city of David to the house he had built for her, for he said, ‘My wife shall not live in the house of King David of Israel, for the places to which the ark of Yahweh has come are holy’” (2 Chronicles 8:11).

Whereas the Book of Kings uses Solomon’s foreign wives to decry him as an idolater, Chronicles uses Pharaoh’s daughter as an occasion to boast of Solomon’s piety. That’s boasting, biblical style!

Define Intervention

ART RESOURCE, NY

What does “paschal” mean?

1. From a psalm
2. Relating to Passover
3. Reserved for the Jerusalem Temple
4. Pertaining to ancient French philosophy and mathematics
5. Unblemished

Answer: (2) Relating to Passover

The word “paschal” derives directly from the Hebrew word pesach, meaning “Passover.” According to Exodus 12, each Israelite household in Egypt was to slaughter a lamb and put some of its blood on their house’s lintel and doorposts. Upon seeing the blood, God would “pass over” their house, rather than taking the life of the family’s firstborn. The sacrifice of the “paschal lamb” was an important part of Passover observance for later generations.

Although the paschal sacrifice is no longer widely practiced, the Samaritan community in northern Israel performs a single communal slaughter every year in conjunction with observance of the holiday. In Christian tradition, which interprets Passover as a prefiguration for the removal of sin through Jesus’s death and resurrection, Jesus is frequently referred to as “the true paschal lamb” in liturgical contexts, particularly around Easter.

“Under the Lee” with Paul

COURTESY MARK WILSON

The sea was calm as our ferry departed from Hora Sfakion, a port on the southwestern coast of Crete. On this hot day in July, I was retracing part of Paul’s ill-fated voyage to Rome, as described in Acts 27–28. The hazy outline of the island of Gavdos (biblical Cauda), the southernmost landform in Europe, appeared 30 miles ahead. Paul’s ship ran “under the lee” of Cauda’s southeastern coast (Acts 27:16). Today, a small chapel near Sarakiniko Bay commemorates the apostle’s visit.

Most Bible readers are landlubbers, so when Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, introduces more than 40 nautical terms in chapters 27–28, his description can become a bit confusing. Some of these terms, including the words hypopleō and hypotrechō, both translated as “under the lee,” appear only here in the New Testament. A “lee” refers to a shelter or a side sheltered from the wind, but what exactly does “under the lee” mean in this context? A survey of the story’s geography provides an answer.

Paul’s voyage, wherein he is taken as a prisoner to stand trial in Rome, had encountered bad weather from the start. After leaving Sidon, Paul’s first ship—a coasting vessel—had continued up the eastern Mediterranean coast. Such merchant ships sailed within sight of land and stopped at a port each night for trading, food, and shelter. As it turned north-westward to sail around Cape Kleides (Karpas) on northeastern Cyprus, the small ship encountered contrary winds that forced it to sail under the lee of Cyprus (27:3–4).

Paul’s Captivity Journey

Maps in Bible atlases typically portray the rerouted ship sailing north of Cyprus, but it actually would have sailed south of it. The northern path was the normal route of coasting vessels. Only Alexandrian grain ships sailed below Cyprus, which was the lee side of the island. Paul’s ship was forced to make the long detour along Cyprus’s southern coast before it could sail northward across the open sea to the Cilician port of Anemurium, the southernmost point of Anatolia. From there, the coasting vessel plied westward along the coast of Pamphylia and Lycia until it reached Andriake, the port of Myra, where Paul changed to an Alexandrian grain ship (Acts 27:5–6).

After some difficult sailing, Paul’s ship found refuge under the lee of southeastern Crete at the harbor of Fair Havens (Acts 27:7–8). Because they were sailing so late in the year, Paul warned that loss of life and cargo was inevitable if they persisted with the voyage. However, his advice was ignored on the grounds that Fair Havens was too small a port in which to winter. So they sailed toward the more suitable harbor at Phoenix (Loutro) on Crete’s southwestern coast. But as they emerged from the lee of Crete at Cape Lithinon (Lithino), a typhonic wind called a eurakylōn drove the ship southward toward Cauda.

By sailing “under the lee” of Cauda, around its southeastern tip, they were sheltered for a time from the wind and waves and the crew was able to secure the ship’s dinghy with difficulty. Modern English Bible versions (e.g., NIV and NLT) that translate skaphē as “lifeboat” are anachronistic because ancient ships never had lifeboats, a modern invention.

On my own voyage to Cauda, I gazed at Cape Tripiti, Europe’s southernmost point, which faces south toward the Libyan Sea. Here lay greater Syrtis (Gulf of Sirte), an area of treacherous sandbanks south of Cauda and off the African coast of Cyrene (Libya). The Greek geographer Strabo mentions that its shallows were a trouble spot for ships, and that if one ran aground, it was rare that the boat could be saved (Geography 17.3.20).

Returning to Acts 27, the captain ordered modifications to the ship to avoid being driven toward Syrtis (27:17). First, it was braced with cables by rigging them laterally around the hull. This prevented the joints of the planks from splitting and kept the seams tight so that they would not open because of the hull’s twisting and flexing. They then lowered the gear. In Greek nautical contexts, the gear most likely means the yard, “mainsail” lashed to it, and fair-weather topsail—not anchors. Lowering these was critical to prevent the mast from cracking and to deploy a storm sail closer to the deck for maintaining steerageway.

ERICH LESSING / ART RESOURCE, NY

As they emerged from the lee of Cauda, the rough seas forced the crew to jettison the cargo and the ship’s tackle (Acts 27:18–19). But these actions only prolonged the inevitable—the shipwreck and eventual coming ashore on Malta.

Throughout Acts 27, we see that only by getting under the sheltered lee side of an island and avoiding the northwesterly winds could the ships transporting Paul make any progress. While the coasting vessel that Paul boarded at Caesarea eventually arrived in Myra, the Alexandrian grain ship, after passing Cauda, no longer had the lee of an island for shelter. The voyage became doomed, but Paul miracu­lously escaped with his 275 shipmates and lived to see another day.1

As the ferry returned to Crete, rugged mountains rose along the southern coast as far as my eyes could see. It was easy to imagine a gale sweeping down their slopes and driving Paul’s ship southward under Cauda’s lee. The swells of the sea were moderate. Fortunately, this short voyage was not to have a shipwreck, one of Paul’s experiences I hopefully will never have to endure.

Text Treasures: The Pilgrimage of Egeria

COURTESY BIBLIOTECA CITTÀ DI AREZZO

Egeria’s Travels is an early Christian pilgrimage account by an educated and well-traveled woman from the Roman province of Galicia (in modern Spain) that tells of her journey to and around the Holy Land. Dating to the late fourth century, this work is a rich source of geographical and historical information.

The account is unfortunately incomplete and survives in a single manuscript, now in the municipal library of Arezzo, Italy. Egeria’s work appears on pages 31–74 of Codex Aretinus 405, which was produced in the 11th century in the monastery of Monte Cassino. It is debatable how faithfully this copy transmits the original work. The parchment manuscript lacks the beginning and ending as well as four pages in the middle. Due to this state of preservation, the original title has not survived. The customary title derives from the work’s content and is variously given as Itinerarium Egeriae (Egeria’s Travels), Peregrinatio ad Loca Sancta (Pilgrimage to the Holy Sites), or Peregrinatio Aetheriae (Pilgrimage of Etheria).

The author’s identity is similarly modern conjecture. Addressing her readers repeatedly as dominae (“ladies”), dominae animae meae (“my dear ladies”), and dominae sorores (“sister ladies”), she clearly was a woman—either a nun writing for fellow nuns or a noblewoman writing for her intimate circle of pious friends. The first scholar to publish the manuscript, G.F. Gamurrini, identified her with the fourth-century noblewoman Silvia di Aquitania. She was later identified with Galla Placidia (388–450), a daughter of the Byzantine emperor Theodosius I, and with “the religious person” whom the seventh-century hermit Valerius of Bierzo (in Galicia, Spain) praised, in a letter to his fellow monks, for her pilgrimage to the Levant. Since different manuscripts of this letter provide several different spellings of her name, she has been variously known as Aetheria, Etheria, and Egeria, the last of which is currently most widely used.

Although the surviving manuscript of Egeria’s Travels dates from the 11th century, the work was likely composed in the late fourth century. From internal evidence (e.g., historical events and names of local figures), scholars infer that Egeria traveled for three years sometime between 381 and 384. This early date makes her account the first Western report about the Christian communities in the Levant, and possibly the first female author from Spain. The text is written in a peculiar type of Late Latin, which was the original language of the composition. A blend of classical and colloquial constructions reflecting the style of the Latin Bible, Egeria’s style is simple and clear, though with numerous dialectal and regional idiosyncrasies.

BILDAGENTUR-ONLINE/SUNNY CELESTE / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Divided into two parts with epistolary features, the work possibly originated as two letters. The first one reports on four trips: (1) to Mt. Sinai and back to Jerusalem, via the land of Goshen (1–9); (2) to Mt. Nebo and the traditional tomb of Moses (10–12); (3) to Carneas in Idumea (13–16); and (4) the return voyage to Constantinople, with stops at Edessa, Charris, Tarsus, Seleucia, and Chalcedon (16–23). The second part concerns the liturgical rites Egeria observed in Jerusalem (24–45), the catechesis prior to and after baptism (45–47), and the anniversary celebrations of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (48–49), after which the text breaks off. It has been suggested that the lost parts of Egeria’s Travels contained descriptions of the holy buildings of Jerusalem, a trip to Egypt, Samaria, and Galilee (with a hike up Mt. Tabor), and details of an excursion into Judea.

The historical value of Egeria’s account rests in its first-hand information about ecclesiastical and monastic buildings in the Holy Land, religious practices at various holy sites, and the organization of early Christian pilgrimages.

Egeria’s Travels was popular through the Middle Ages, and later works are known to have used Egeria’s account, including the 12th-century Liber de locis sanctis (Book About the Holy Sites) by Peter the Deacon, who apparently had the intact Codex Aretinus at his disposal.

The most recent English translation of Egeria’s Travels, with the facing Latin text, is Paul F. Bradshaw and Anne McGowan’s Egeria, Journey to the Holy Land (Brepols, 2020). The best critical edition of the Latin original appeared in the series Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 175 (Itineraria et alia geographica, pp. 37–90; Brepols, 1965); a different Latin edition (from Sources Chrétiennes, vol. 296) is available online, at https://digiliblt.uniupo.it.

Artificial Intelligence and Bible Translation

1MICHAELLANE / LIGHTSTOCK

Today the Bible is being translated into thousands of different languages. Some of these, like Chinese or Arabic, are spoken by billions or hundreds of millions of people. Others are local dialects that are known primarily in the small communities that use them. Most of this translation work is done using software designed specifically for Bible translation. Some of this software can process human language much as traditional software handles data, using a variety of techniques collectively termed Natural Language Processing (NLP).

NLP has often been done using statistical models that can run on typical computers. More advanced software, such as Google Search, Google Translate, and ChatGPT, uses complex language tools and algorithms called neural models to process and generate human language. These generally require high-end servers, and analyze vast amounts of text data to create powerful Large Language Models (LLMs) using methods that are often called “artificial intelligence” or AI. (Artificial intelligence is often loosely defined and implies human-like understanding. This article uses the terms NLP and LLM, which are more specific and precise.) LLMs have dramatically improved the power of NLP, promising new ways to make the translation process more efficient, ensure the quality of Bible translations, and help researchers create high-quality resources for Bible translators.

NLP tools can associate the words in a translation to the corresponding words in the Bible’s original Greek or Hebrew, a process known as “alignment.” These alignments can be used to:

■ Perform many kinds of checks for translation consistency
■ Associate dictionary entries, images, articles, and maps with the original text
■ Create draft translations that can be used as a starting point for a translation
■ Provide rich linguistic analysis of a translation and the choices made in the translation process
■ Identify unclear, unnatural, or inaccurate passages within a translation
■ Produce exegetical resources to support translation work

Using NLP for some of these purposes is not new. For example, Paratext, the most widely used Bible translation tool, began using NLP in 2007. Within Paratext, the “Biblical Terms” tool uses NLP to help translation teams ensure that key biblical terms like “salvation,” “sanctification,” and “redemption” are translated accurately and consistently throughout the Bible. Paratext also uses the alignment process to associate external resources with the original biblical text, and has an “Interlinearizer” that can provide glosses for a translation.

—–

Researchers are now exploring new ways to leverage modern NLP. For instance, several translation organizations are exploring first drafts generated entirely with NLP. SIL International’s AQuA project (www.ai.sil.org/Projects/AQuA) trains NLP models using the judgments of expert translation consultants to identify passages that are unclear, inaccurate, or unnatural. AQuA is not always reliable; sometimes the passages it flags are fine. But if AQuA flags a passage as problematic, then the odds are good that the passage has problems that should be discussed. Other groups are exploring a variety of ways to do linguistic analysis of translations using NLP to support Bible translation and create exegetical re-sources.

NLP software may improve quality and efficiency, but Bible translation is best done by human beings, using software as a tool. Producing a first draft is only about 10 percent of the work involved in creating a translation, whether that draft is produced by humans or NLP. Even if software could create a perfect translation—and it cannot—the process of translating the Bible into a local language creates a sense of ownership and community, bringing together the translation team and the group they serve, while also preparing that community to study and teach using the translation that is produced. If the group for whom a translation is intended does not feel connected to it, they may never use it.

Software and resources are best used in ways that help translation teams work together. Such teams are usually diverse, composed of people who bring different cultures, skills, knowledge, and experience to the task. Teams may include native speakers of the target language who lack training in the biblical languages and experienced scholars and translators who do not have a background in the target language.

Modern LLMs like ChatGPT are powerful NLP systems that can write essays or web page content, but they are not optimized for Bible translation. For one thing, they are not trained on trusted translation resources. But developers can create high-quality output by providing good linguistic data, commentaries, and other reliable reference works as input, configuring software so that it does not use less acceptable sources. Additionally, although such models do not have good support for most of the world’s languages, an existing LLM can be “fine-tuned” for a new language, providing useful results with only a small amount of text from that language.

The translation world also faces the same challenges that other developers face in preparing LLMs for use in the NLP context. LLMs can sometimes make things up, provide wildly inconsistent answers, or provide answers in forms that are hard to use. Together with the rest of the software world, we are learning how to overcome these challenges in Bible translation.

Above all, while NLP can rapidly create results that are often good, these results still need to be verified and edited by human beings before they can be considered trustworthy. If this is kept in mind, NLP can be used in a wide variety of ways to improve the quality of Bible translation and make it more efficient. This article only scratches the surface; the entire field of NLP is progressing very rapidly, and so are the applications to Bible translation. The possibilities are vast, and we are only beginning to explore them.

Biblical Bestiary: Snake

IMAGE COURTESY DALLAS MUSEUM OF ART

Snakes live in almost all environments and thus appear in all ancient cultures, albeit with different connotations. Belonging to the taxonomic order Serpentes, dozens of snake species live in the southern Levant, and it is often difficult to distinguish them in ancient written sources and artistic representations.

In the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, a serpent steals from Gilgamesh and eats the magical herb that could grant immortality. Several Near Eastern gods are associated with snakes, which generally connote danger or the strength to overcome it. In Canaanite religion, the serpent was associated with the god Baal, whose wife Asherah was sometimes depicted with snakes. In Arabia, the snake was a symbol of the sun. In Egypt, snakes could be either beneficial or harmful, as the giant snake Apep could devour a soul in the underworld, but the cobra was associated with the tutelary goddess of Lower Egypt, Wadjet, who served to protect the pharaoh.

Several iconic stories in the Hebrew Bible feature snakes, mostly under the generic name nahash. In the story of creation, a snake convinces Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, resulting in the first couple’s expulsion from Eden (Genesis 3). At Yahweh’s command, Moses and Aaron perform miracles before Pharaoh that include turning a walking stick into a snake that devours the snakes produced by Egyptian magicians (Exodus 7:8–13). During the Exodus, Yahweh sends venomous snakes to punish murmuring Israelites, but then instructs Moses to make a serpent of bronze by the sight of which people are healed (Numbers 21). More poisonous snakes appear in Psalm 58:4 and Proverbs 23:32.

Contrary to the overwhelmingly negative representation of snakes in the Bible, some ancient mythologies offer a more positive view. In the Greco-Roman world, the snake was an attribute of Asclepius and a symbol of life and health. The Rod of Asclepius (caduceus), which depicts a snake winding around a pole, is today a medical symbol. From classical antiquity come armlets in the shape of snakes that include this gold example from the first century CE, now in the Dallas Museum of Art.

The New Testament reuses the Exodus snake story to draw a link between the healing powers of the brazen serpent and the redeeming effects of Jesus’s crucifixion (John 3:14–15). To illustrate the Christian teaching about Jesus’s redemptive sacrifice, Christian iconography portrays Mary the mother of Jesus as crushing the snake’s head under her feet, in reference to Genesis 3:15: “He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” In the Book of Revelation, “that ancient serpent,” this time identified with Satan, is bound for a thousand years (12:9) and then finally destroyed (20:10).

Were There 12 Tribes of Israel?

DJAMPA / CC BY SA-4.0

The authors of the biblical books of Genesis through Kings tended to define Israel as a community of 12 tribes. The tribal ancestors—the 12 sons of Jacob—are the protagonists of the second half of Genesis, and the tribes take center stage in most of the other books in this group. The conquest of Canaan (Joshua 13–19), the split of the United Monarchy into Israel and Judah (1 Kings 11–12), and even the Assyrian conquest of Israel in 722 BCE (2 Kings 17) are all described in tribal terms. Judges 5, which may well be the oldest text in the Hebrew Bible, is a poem describing a conflict between a number of the tribes and an invading Canaanite army. Thus, some version of the tribal tradition existed very early.

But were there actually 12 tribes of Israel? That is a difficult question to answer.1

For one thing, although some biblical authors seem focused on details of tribal Israel, others hardly seem interested. There are at least 19 descriptions of the tribes between Genesis 29 and Judges 5, but in later biblical books, there isn’t even a complete account of which tribes lived in which of the two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. Outside of Ezekiel 48, most of the prophets never mention the tribes.

In the same vein, Judges 5, often called the Song of Deborah, may prove the early origins of the tribal tradition, but it does not mention all 12 of the familiar tribes.a It is missing Judah, Simeon, Levi, and Gad. And it refers to certain groups that are elsewhere treated either like subtribes (Machir and Gilead) or not mentioned at all (Meroz), without distinguishing them from the tribes. There may be other early tribal lists (e.g., Genesis 49), but they were likely edited later on in various ways. It is very hard to know what they prove and don’t prove.

Meanwhile, outside the Bible, there is hardly any evidence at all. There may—or may not—be a reference to the tribe of Gad in the Mesha Stele, a ninth-century BCE Moabite inscription describing a conflict between King Mesha of Moab and the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. But that would seem to be it. We have a large number of Israelite and Judahite personal names preserved in various inscriptions,b but I am not aware of even one that describes an individual as a member of a tribe.

In short, we have a situation where the intense focus on the tribes throughout biblical history stands in some tension with both their absence from other biblical compositions and outside evidence. At the same time, there are a few things we can say with confidence. First, it seems clear that there were some tribes in early periods. Second, it is even more clear that a few tribes were still important in the region of Judah after the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century BCE, namely the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi. Two of the latest books in the Hebrew Bible, Ezra and Nehemiah, describe these tribes as the first three to return from exile (Ezra 1) and, later, as Jerusalem’s residents (Nehemiah 11–12). Even in the New Testament, Paul, who lived in the first century CE, repeatedly describes himself as a member of the tribe of Benjamin (Acts 13:21; Romans 11:1; Philippians 3:5).

In addition, there may still have been tribes in the region of Israel—as opposed to Judah—even in later periods. Second Kings 17, the most detailed biblical account of the aforementioned Assyrian conquest, claims that all the tribes living in Israel were taken away to Assyria. Yet other biblical texts, such as 2 Chronicles 30, suggest the survival of Israelite tribes in the region, and the archaeological evidence is increasingly on that side. The people known to history as the Samaritans are likely the descendants of these Israelites who were not exiled, as they themselves have always claimed. They have a long history of identifying with the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Levi, which survives to this day.

So were there actually 12 tribes of Israel? Broadly, I think probably not. I would suggest that the tradition of the 12 tribes was invented in Judah, sometime after the Assyrian conquest of Israel, by expanding a more ancient Israelite tribal tradition, like Judges 5, into a form that included Judah itself. This might have happened for many reasons, including a desire to incorporate Israelite refugees into Judah, to claim greater prestige, or even to claim some former Israelite territory. It was likely also accompanied by the switch of the tribe of Benjamin from Israel to Judah, which would explain why 1 Kings 11–12 seems to go back and forth on the number of tribes—one or two—in the Kingdom of Judah.

Ultimately, then, we should probably think of the 12 tribes tradition as an idealized vision of Israelite identity that developed some time after the heyday of Israel’s—and not Judah’s—tribes. This idealized vision may well have been considerably more important to the biblical authors, writing in the sixth through fourth centuries BCE, than to any historic tribe, judging from the lack of epigraphic evidence. Then again, we must have some explanation for the survival of at least a handful of tribes into the late eras of biblical composition and even into the time of the New Testament.

Still, it is the role of the 12 tribes as the paradigmatic vision of a unified Israel, and not any historical importance they may have had, that best explains the ongoing fascination with the tribes and the search for those that are “lost.” Indeed, in the first century CE, the Jewish historian Josephus already understood the lost tribes of Israel as an immense multitude across the Euphrates (Antiquities 11.133). Second Esdras, a book of the Apocrypha from around the same time, features a vision of the tribes returning to Israel at the end of days. The Jerusalem Talmud and Genesis Rabbah, likely from the late fourth and fifth centuries, offer similar accounts of the lost tribes.

In the long run, then, actual tribal identifications faded in the Jewish diaspora. But the idea of the 12 tribes as the real Israel—and an Israel that would be restored—survived. There are even those groups, all around the world, who claim to be one or more of the tribes of Israel, and there have been for quite some time. Identifying with the tribes has long served as a way of claiming some part of ancient Israel’s legacy from somewhere else, a little later on. And the Judahites might have done it first.

Clip Art

DJEHOUT Y / CC BY-SA 4.0

Do you recognize this object?

1. Merneptah Stele
2. Arslan Tash Amulet
3. Narmer Palette
4. Mesha Stele
5. Siloam Tunnel Inscription

Answer: (3) Narmer Palette

PHOTO: ÁNGEL M. FELICÍSIMO / CC BY 2.0

Narmer is widely considered to be the founder of ancient Egypt’s First Dynasty. This palette, dating to c. 3100 BCE, depicts his unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. These two symbols also appear next to the king himself, without the serekh, on the palette face picturing Narmer with a flat crown.

PHOTO: ÁNGEL M. FELICÍSIMO / CC BY 2.0

The palette is also significant because it provides one of the earliest glimpses of hieroglyphic writing. Centered along the top edge of each face is a square enclosure called a serekh (literally “palace façade”), a precursor to the later cartouche design used to isolate royal names from what surrounds them. This serekh contains two glyphs, a catfish and a chisel, which are read together as Narmer, the king’s name. These two symbols also appear next to the king himself, without the serekh, on the face shown at left.

What Was the Star of Bethlehem?

MANUEL COHEN / ART RESOURCE, NY.

For the past 2,000 years, people have wondered about the identity and nature of the Star of Bethlehem. And for hundreds of years, some of the world’s smartest people—including famed astronomer Johannes Kepler—have tried to use science to find the answer. Dozens, if not hundreds, of natural solutions have been put forward to account for the Nativity story in Matthew 2:1–12.a However, no matter which astronomical phenomenon is suggested, there is one massive problem: Nearly all modern science-based solutions ignore how ancient people thought about and examined the sky.

As scientific advancements have drastically changed what we know about the sky, they have also drastically altered how we think about it. There is no guarantee that a particular celestial event identified by a modern astronomer would be seen as auspicious by ancient people—much less as predicting a future king—no matter how interesting or remarkable we might find that event today. But, if modern astronomy cannot identify the Star of Bethlehem, can ancient astronomy?

Ancient cultures throughout the Near East and Mediterranean had thriving and complex astronomical systems through which they examined and interpreted the sky. Although today these systems would more aptly be termed astral divination, in antiquity the difference between astronomy and astrology was negligible. After all, this is the reason the Magi would travel “from the East” (Matthew 2:1) upon seeing a star (see Book Review: The Magi in History and Tradition). These “wise men” did not operate according to any sort of modern principles; rather, they would have interpreted the sky in culturally specific ways, reading the sky as we would read a weather forecast today.

Although each system of ancient astronomy was unique, by the first century BCE many of them had come to prioritize highly regular and mathematically predictable events, such as lunar phases, eclipses, and the procession of the zodiac. Within Babylonian astronomy, already an ancient and revered system by the Roman period, nearly every repetitive event had its own significance, including every day, month, area of the sky, and celestial body. Yet these events were never taken on their own, and a wide range of factors could drastically impact their interpretation by astronomers—factors, such as weather patterns, that would have little or no bearing on the astronomy of today and are now irrecoverable in any case. An eclipse on a specific day, for example, may have indicated the death of a king, but the presence of clouds covering a particular side of the moon could have changed the king to which the signs referred, and thus whether it was a bad or good sign. More signs could then be layered on top of these, creating ever more complex results.

INSET: COURTESY STAATLICHE MUSEEN ZU BERLIN, VORDERASIATISCHES MUSEUM / OLAF M. TESSMER, CC BY-SA 4.0.

In antiquity, diagnostic manuals and charts existed for reading the heavens, such as the 70-tablet-long Babylonian text Enuma Anu Enlil, from which astronomers could base their interpretations. In practice, however, these interpretations were never as consistent and straightforward as one might expect. A similarly convoluted system existed in Roman astronomy. Ptolemy’s Apotelesmatika (second century CE), for example, listed seven separate regions that could be represented by an astronomical phenomenon in Aries: Britain, Gaul, Germany, Bastarnia, Syria, Idumea, and Judea. Yet many of these regions were not agreed upon by scholars of Ptolemy’s own age, which highlights the remarkably disparate range of possible interpretations.

Thus, we arrive at a twofold problem. First, ancient astronomers placed critical value on many astral phenomena that fall outside the purview of modern astronomy, including things as mundane as the weather. Second, interpretations of these events could vary greatly, even between individual astronomers who could choose which phenomena they focused on and which they did not.

Unfortunately, the Gospel of Matthew is of little help in pinning down what the Star of Bethlehem may have been. Despite the interpretive efforts of numerous scholars, Matthew’s description remains too vague, allowing for an incredible array of possible explanations before one even considers the many other phenomena that the ancients would have factored into their understanding of the sky.

Indeed, we cannot even be certain who the Magi were (see Book Review: The Magi in History and Tradition). While Matthew refers to them as magoi, a type of Zoroastrian priest from Persia, there is little evidence that such priests were common practitioners of astral divination. This word is used occasionally as a generic term for non-Greek scholars, including a group frequently called Chaldeans (Daniel 2:2), who were identified in Hellenistic times as practitioners of Babylonian astronomy. Yet even if we could connect the Magi to Babylonian astronomy with any confidence, the earlier twofold problem remains: ancient astronomers would have considered phenomena that we are unable to reconstruct in modern times; and even if we could, we would have no way of knowing exactly how the Magi themselves would have interpreted them.

While natural and scientific solutions have become increasingly popular, they fail to account for the insurmountable fact that in order to know what the Magi saw that night more than 2,000 years ago, we ourselves would need to be able to experience and know the world as they did. Perhaps those are things best left to the imagination rather than to modern science.