Cities Through the Looking Glass: Essays on the History and Archaeology of Biblical Urbanism

Written by Rami Arav, ed. Reviewed By John Goldingay

This symposium has its background in a conference on Urbanism in the Biblical World in 2003 that was designed to make it possible for “text scholars” and “material culture scholars” to interact. (The essays are described as “inspired by” the papers at the conference. I am still wondering what that means. It sounds like a quasi-soundtrack CD of songs that never made it into the movie.) The collection is subtitled “Essays on the History and Archaeology of Biblical Urbanism,” and I expected to find it focusing on Israel in Old Testament times, though it actually ranges much wider.

It does begin with a paper by Nicholae Roddy on “the image of city in the Hebrew Bible.” Given that he dissociates himself from the theological impetus of Jacques Ellul’s The Meaning of the City, it is the more significant that Dr. Roddy agrees with Ellul that the Old Testament’s estimate of the city is overwhelmingly negative; “from the vantage point of Israel’s exiled seers and visionaries, the city remains little more than an inherently incomplete, human-made construct of magnificent emptiness and fleeting shadow” (p. 21). (I am puzzled at the emphasis on the exile here and elsewhere in the paper, since other parts of the paper show that this is not a uniquely exilic stance.)

Paul Allen Williams then suggests that the attitude to cities in the Gospels is similar. Cities are powerful places and dangerous places. On the other hand, the picture changes in the Epistles, where Christian communities are an urban-focused phenomenon even while defining themselves in opposition to the cities’ social and political structures. Laura Grams’s paper on “The City and the Philosopher in Ancient Greece” demonstrates that attitudes are rather different in Greek thinking as represented by Socrates and his descendants. Leonard Greenspoon’s paper on “Text and the City” at first also seems rather more tangentially related to the symposium’s theme, but it interestingly shows how the text of the Septuagint, presumed to have been translated in Alexandria, reflects the life of the translator’s city and the need to communicate with the Jewish community there.

John T. Greene focuses on cities in Galilee, not in New Testament times but in the Iron Age, and reports on excavations at Kinneret, Hazor, Dan, and Bethsaida (Tzer)—two cities well-known from the Old Testament text, two not so well-known in that connection. He notes the great significance of these cities in that region but also how these four main “pearls of the Upper Galilee” were thus “doomed” once Assyria decided to campaign in the area (p. 79). The last city in these four, Bethsaida, is then the subject of the book’s longest chapter by the editor, who is one of its senior excavators. The essay offers a thorough account of this fortified city’s environment, landscape, flora and fauna, layout, buildings, and religious life. Finally, the last chapter is another “case study” of a city, Jerusalem itself, by leading Israeli geographer and archeologist Dan Bahat; he was for a long period the official archeologist of the city of Jerusalem and has been called “Israel’s Indiana Jones.” He describes the development of Jerusalem between the Hasmoneans and Herod the Great, illustrating the possibilities and the challenges involved in bringing together written sources and archeological discoveries.


John Goldingay

Fuller Theological Seminary

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