Palestine, Judea, and the Wider World

Palestine, Judea, and the Wider World October 30, 2015

I have been working on the Second Temple era of Jewish history, of what is sometimes called the Inter-Testamental period (roughly 300 BC – 50 AD). I am increasingly aware of the need to define the geographical scope of any such project, and the quite radical changes that through the centuries affected the limits of the “Jewish World.” Of course, that means taking the Diaspora into account, but it also applies to the limits of what we generally call Palestine. In the next couple of posts, I will be talking about the changing borders and limits of the territory involved, and the surprising diversity of the peoples it contained.

When scholars write about this era – for instance, when they try to place the origins of an apocryphal text – they might well locate in Palestine, or in Palestinian Judaism. But here’s the problem. Depending strictly on date, that term might apply to a widespread area, or basically to the city of Jerusalem and its immediately outlying areas.

As I have written before, Palestine in my usage refers to the geographical area that is today covered by the state of Israel, the Palestinian territories, and the Gaza Strip. That is the area defined as Palestine during the British Mandate that ended in 1948, and subsequently partitioned under United Nations auspices. Despite modern political controversies, that meaning is commonly used by modern Jewish scholars of ancient times, including such prominent figures as Lawrence Schiffman. Such scholars speak of Palestinian Judaism, even the Palestinian Talmud.

For Americans particularly, one surprising point about this Palestinian context is the very small size of the territory concerned. Palestine in that historic sense covered perhaps eleven thousand square miles. As the crow flies (and ignoring borders and security walls), traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus in Syria is a mere 160 miles. Jerusalem to Nazareth is around 70 miles.

That in itself should make us consider the maps we see portraying Jesus’s lifetime, where such cities are at opposite ends of the map, and we wonder how an ordinary person could easily make such a trek. Put in mileage terms, though, the distances look a lot less daunting. They even increase the possibility that perhaps Jesus was a serial visitor to Jerusalem, as the Gospel of John suggests.

When we visualize the “Biblical world,” we often tend to confine it within that Palestinian context. That tendency is perhaps much more common in modern times with the existence of the state of Israel, which defines the scope of our consciousness. In reality, though, those limits rarely made sense in ancient times, and a great deal of Biblical history happened beyond the Jordan, or deep into what we would now call Syria or Jordan.

In making this comment, I am particularly thinking of the insights of Rachel Havrelock’s important book River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line. As I remarked in an earlier post,

Havrelock traces the history of shifting ideas of the limits of the Holy Land. Israelite tribes certainly lived across the Jordan, and much Biblical history concerns the interactions with Ammon, Moab and Edom, but different writers varied as to whether the river constituted a hard and fast boundary. That may sound like a technical and even legalistic argument, but it gets to much deeper issues about the exclusiveness of the Israelite community, and its relationship to the wider Gentile world. “Borders” in other words are psychological and spiritual as much as physical, and the Jordan (like many rivers) carries multiple symbolic meanings. To say that “we” live on this side of the river also means that they, those foreigners, those unclean people, live on the other shore, and are nothing to do with us.

This ongoing debate was at its sharpest in the post-Exile world, which produced two wildly divergent interpretations. The view in Ezra and Nehemiah “bases nationhood on racial purity and appears to conceive the nation as a wagons-circled concentration in Jerusalem of Judeans returned from Babylonia; the other, suggested in the Book of Ruth … involves a surprising reversibility of borders.” Havrelock then traces the more expansive view to later universalist movements – to rabbinic Judaism and, of course, to the world of John the Baptist and Jesus.

It’s an important argument, to which I shall return in my next post.

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