From Chapter 1. Saving Knowledge from Catastrophe
The World’s First Archaeological Story
Our investigation begins with a little-known story about the origins of knowledge--little known, but not without influence. Arguably the world’s first-ever story of archaeology, Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote it down in the 80s of the first century CE, that is about fifty years after his countryman Jesus was crucified.
A guest of the Flavian imperial dynasty in Rome (hence “Flavius”), Josephus hoped his history--The Antiquities of the Jews--would help Greek-reading Romans better appreciate Jewish people. This was timely. Thousands of Jewish warriors had been slaughtered during the previous two decades by imperial troops confronted with religiously motivated “zealots” trying to overthrow Roman jurisdiction. Having joined the rebels himself in the war’s early stages, Josephus shrewdly submitted to Rome, proclaiming that Roman general Vespasian fulfilled the East’s widespread expectation of a savior. When Vespasian established the Flavian dynasty as emperor in 69 CE, Josephus was rewarded.
Josephus wanted Romans to see that not all Jews were persistent rebels, nor were they habitually addicted to crazy beliefs. On the contrary, Josephus’s ancestors were, by Roman standards, rational people maintaining comprehensible traditions, supported by respectable ancient texts compiled long before Roman history began. Confident in his mission, Josephus believed that by presenting Jewish history, he was preserving truth for all humanity because Jewish history took everyone back to the beginning.
The progeny of the first human being is described by Josephus in Antiquities’ second chapter: Adam was not only the Jews’ ancestor, he was the Romans’ ancestor too.
The human race, however, got off to a bad start. Adam’s son Cain fathered a line of wicked reprobates, tainted by Cain’s outrageous murder of pious brother, Abel. Fortunately, Adam and Eve produced a third son, Seth. Seth fathered a lineage distinguished by respect for God and honorable conduct toward God’s creatures: virtues rewarded by access to knowledge of higher things. Josephus describes the higher things in terms of awareness of God, farsighted inventiveness, and knowledge of astronomy.
“They also were the inventors of that peculiar sort of wisdom which is concerned with the heavenly bodies, and their order. And that their inventions might not be lost before they were sufficiently known, upon Adam’s prediction that the world was to be destroyed at one time by the force of fire, and at another time by the violence and quantity of water, they made two pillars, the one of brick, the other of stone: they inscribed their discoveries on them both, that in case the pillar of brick should be destroyed by the flood, the pillar of stone might remain, and exhibit those discoveries to mankind; and also inform them that there was another pillar of brick erected by them. Now this remains in the land of Siriad to this day.”1
Josephus’s compelling image of antediluvian pillars is unique. Nowhere does it appear in the Hebrew Bible. In the Bible, pillars generally receive more bad press than good because Hebrew prophets perennially associated them with idolatry. We don’t know whence Josephus obtained his pillars story, or--and this is important--what the original story may have lost in Josephus’s rather casual telling of it. I say this because Josephus’s history frequently glosses over what non-Jews might find difficult. His pillar story utilizes his distinctive style of ameliorative, urbanely philosophical apologetic. For example, Josephus does not labor the point that conflagrations of fire and water were horrific punishments sent by an outraged deity determined to exterminate humanity--and practically everything else on earth. Josephus may have suspected such an emphasis might offend his Gentile audience with the whiff of unrestrained or fanatical vengeance, and Josephus knew very well that it was apocalyptic predictions of an imminent end of the world in favor of a national savior that had recently motivated Jewish zealots to rise against Rome. Such activities left Jews suspected, and heavily taxed, with Rome commandeering the old temple taxes even after Jerusalem’s temple ceased to exist.
In his rational, universalized account, Josephus’s pillars (or stelae) of brick and stone were erected to preserve discoveries that would otherwise have disappeared in the event of cataclysms, with survivors denied knowledge of them. Josephus emphasizes educative benefit to all human beings. He was aware that predictions of terrestrial deluges were not confined to Jews. Educated Romans knew Greek philosopher Plato’s account in the Timaeus, written in about 360 BCE, of how the great isle of Atlantis sank beneath unforgiving waves. In Plato’s account, an Egyptian priest informs the Greek Solon that Egypt had avoided vastations by flood that ruined other countries thanks to blessed geography and intelligent management of the Nile. Thus, in Josephus’s narrative, Adam’s predictions of water and fire deluges reveal Adam as wise soothsayer rather than unstoical fire-and-brimstone prophet. And, to add a sign of good faith--and a reminder that it was real history about real things the historian was attempting to convey--Josephus added an intriguing codicil: one of the Sethite pillars could still be found.
Given what Josephus says about the stone pillar being the likeliest to survive flood, it was presumably the stone pillar that remained in “Siriad.” That God felt compelled to destroy human beings by water is presented by Josephus as proper punishment invited by provocation: all but Noah and his immediate kin had turned wicked, hell-bent on destruction. God would replace rotten seed with a purified race. Romans understood the necessity for imposing punitive measures upon any who failed to honor divine power, so Josephus was able to tiptoe the tightrope by showing that the Jews’ God likewise favored order, austere justice, and respectful honor, and that God’s punishments, though severe, were nonetheless just, emblematic of an incorruptible judge of humankind. Indeed, the God of Genesis might be compared to stark Roman power as typified in a famous speech Roman historian Tacitus attributed to enemy Caledonian chieftain, Calgacus: “They make a desert, and call it peace.”