Fake News in the Ancient World

Yardenna Alexandre

In the modern world, the term “news” is applied to true or accurate information that is transmitted to an audience using various communication means. By contrast, “fake news” is applied to false, biased, or invented information transmitted similarly, the latter term suggesting that the incorrect information purports to be genuine news, and that it is distributed in order to purposely misinform or mislead the audience, or to present a selective or biased view of an issue. Leaders, governments, and all who exercise power have a vested interest in and varying degrees of control on the news and the messages diffused. In the latter half of the 20th century, news was mostly transmitted to the general public by newspaper reporting, radio and television.  In the 21st century, worldwide diffusion of all digital media is achieved within seconds via underwater fiber-optic cables or satellite-supported internet sites and social networks.

Donald Trump, president of the United States since 2016, popularized and even vulgarized the term “fake news” during his presidential campaign by using it to cast doubt on all negative, even if legitimate, press coverage of himself from an opposing political standpoint.

In the light of the above we are likely to think of “fake news” as a new, or at least recent phenomenon. But are the terms “news” and “fake news” also relevant to the ancient world? What means did leaders in the ancient world have to spread their messages? Were false messages, lies or half-truths diffused? As we study the past, can we today distinguish the “fake ancient news” from the “genuine ancient news?”

In this article we will look at examples of three different aspects of the broad issue of news and fake news encountered in the search for the historical reality in the ancient Near East: the messages diffused on coins; the divergent reportage of events in the biblical and the ancient Near Eastern texts; and the modern misinterpretation of ancient archaeological remains. The data and the assessments presented here were generously contributed by four professional scholars, my teachers and colleagues, to whom I am extremely grateful. Any outstanding mistakes or misunderstandings are my own responsibility.

Coins for Victory

The first coins appeared in Anatolia in the seventh century BCE, and their use for commerce became widespread in the Aegean and the Near East in the sixth to fifth centuries BCE. Rulers minted coins with portraits and inscriptions expressing messages they chose to impart to their citizens. In the Roman period (the first to the late fourth centuries CE), the emperors exploited the standard Roman currency as a means to spread “news” about their achievements, or their claimed achievements, throughout the empire. By studying these ancient coins, historians and archaeologists can learn much about historical events, but the data must be evaluated critically and in the light of all additional available sources. Dr. Gabriela Bijovsky, Israel Antiquities Authority numismatist specializing in the coinage of the classical periods, reexamined and published a coin hoard of about 3,700 bronze coins that was purposely hidden in antiquity in the Roman-period synagogue at Caesarea and that was retrieved in an archaeological excavation in the 1960s (Raphael and Bijovsky 2014). According to Bijovsky, the majority of the coins were “fallen horseman” coins struck between 351 and 361 CE, by the Emperors Constantius II, Constantius Gallus and Julian II. The inscription reads “Fel Temp Reparatio” meaning “Renewal of Happy Times,” and the reverse of the coin depicts Virtus (Virtue), representing the emperor, spearing a fallen horseman        (Fig. 1).

fig 1

Fig. 1. The “Fallen Horseman” coin (internet source: https://coinquest.com/cgi-bin/cq/coins.pl?large=16713)

Bijovsky explained,

The military character of the depictions on these coins was intended to applaud the victory of the Roman emperor over the Persians. Enormous quantities of these coins were struck in eastern mints in order to facilitate payment of wages for the troops stationed in the east, and at the same time to impart a message to the soldiers of the infallible success of the Roman army and empire. This was clearly propaganda, as in this period the Romans undertook ongoing campaigns against the Persians with little lasting effect.

Who killed the two kings of Israel and Judah?

The search for the genuine history of Early Israel has concerned biblical scholars, historians, and archaeologists over the last two centuries, and the available sources include a wide range of second and first millennium BCE texts from Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia, in addition to biblical sources and archaeological finds. Scholars find a patent gap between the rhetoric and ideology expressed in the royal inscriptions of the Mesopotamian kings of Assyria and Babylon and the historical reality. Is it possible to evaluate whether the ancient sources tell the truth as to what actually happened?

For an example, we will turn to the ancient written sources that shed light on military conflicts that took place between the kingdoms of Israel, Judah, and Aram in the southern Levant in the late ninth century BCE. According to the biblical account in the book of Kings, Jehu initiated an uprising and assassinated Jehoram son of Ahab, king of the northern kingdom of Israel, and usurped his throne. On the same day, or at least in the same revolt, he also murdered Ahaziah, king of Judah:

Then Jehu drew his bow and shot Jehoram between the shoulders; the arrow pierced his heart and he slumped down in his chariot … When Ahaziah, king of Judah saw what happened, he fled up the road to Beth Haggan; Jehu chased him, shouting, “Kill him too!” They wounded him in his chariot on the way up to Gur, near Ibleʽam, but he escaped to Megiddo and died there (2 Kings 9:24–27).

The biblical text was the sole account that we had of these events until archaeologists discovered the “House of David” basalt stone stele[1] in the 1993–1995 excavations of the Iron Age gate at Tel Dan, the northernmost city of the Kingdom of Israel (Fig. 2; Biran and Naveh 1993, 1995).

fig 2

Fig. 2. The Iron Age gate at Tel Dan, after restoration (credit: Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology)

Three fragments of this royal inscription were retrieved in secondary use as building stones embedded in the walls, the paved floor, and in the overlying debris. The location of all the fragments in the gate area suggests that the stele was originally erected at the entrance to the city, to be seen by all passersby, including the local population and foreigners.

The thirteen extant lines of this Aramaic alphabetic inscription read:

Translation
[…] and cut […] my father went up [against him when] he fought at […] And my father lay down, he went to his [ancestors]. And the king of I[s]rael entered previously in my father’s land. [And] Hadad made me king. And Hadad went in front of me, [and] I departed from [the] seven […]s of my kingdom, and I slew [seve]nty kings, who harnessed thou[sands of cha]riots and thousands of horsemen (or: horses). [I killed Jeho]ram son of [Ahab] king of Israel, and [I] killed [Ahaz]iahu son of [Jehoram kin]g of the House of David. And I set [their towns into ruins and turned] their land into [desolation …] other [… and Jehu ru]led over Is[rael … and I laid] siege upon […] (Biran and Naveh 1995:13).

fig 3

Fig. 3. The three fragments of the Tel Dan stele inscription (credit: Collection of Israel Antiquities Authority; Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, by Peter Lanyi)

The Tel Dan inscription (Fig. 3), exhibited in the Israel Museum, has inspired a long stream of research dealing with the wide variety of its direct and indirect implications. Dr. Eran Arie, Frieder Burda Curator of Iron Age and Persian Period Archaeology at the Israel Museum, explains,

The king who erected the stele, boasts of his many victories and specifically of killing both King Jehoram of Israel and King Ahaziah of the House of David. Although the name of the king was not preserved in the inscription, the historical events mentioned in the text leave no doubt that it was Hazael, king of Aram-Damascus, thus contradicting the “news” report in the book of Kings that it was Jehu who slaughtered the two kings. Hazael is known from Assyrian and Aramaic sources as a great conqueror in the late ninth century BCE, and he is portrayed in the Bible as the bitter enemy of the Kingdom of Israel, as well as of Judah and the Philistines.

Arie adds that the archaeological excavations at Jezreel, Megiddo, Taanach, Yoqne’am, Beth Shean, Rehov, and Hazor have revealed destruction layers that are dated to the Aramaean wars conducted by Hazael against the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The subsequent smashing of the stele that reflected the Aramean supremacy, and the reuse of its fragments as regular building stones in the eighth century BCE, should be attributed to the reign of Joash, king of Israel and grandson of Jehu, who battled the Aramean forces and conquered the city of Dan.

Nadav Na’aman, Emeritus Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University considers that in the biblical source, Jehu was inaccurately “credited” as the assassinator of Jehoram and Ahaziah, since the historical memory of the events had grown blurred by the time that the biblical narrative was written down at least two centuries after the events (Na’aman 2006, 183–184). Jehu clearly took advantage of the situation by usurping the throne of the northern kingdom and killing off the other descendants of the House of Omri.

Is the seemingly inaccurate or “fake news” recorded in the biblical account attributable to the blurring of historical memory? Or does the biblical text intentionally “credit” Jehu as the assassinator? Or, less likely, Jehu was acting in the service of the Aramean king Hazael? Can we definitively unravel the true historical reality behind the texts?

The “House of David:” History or Fake News?

The fact that the “House of David” stele is the sole extra-biblical reference to the Davidic dynasty that has been uncovered to date, throws light on another important “news or fake news” issue. Arie explains,

The Tel Dan Inscription, set in stone only some 150 years after the reign of King David, is dramatic evidence that the Kingdom of Judah was referred to throughout the region by its ruling dynasty as the “House of David,” thus validating the biblical description that David was the founder of the dynasty of Judahite kings in Jerusalem. This evidence runs counter to the minimalistic scholarly view that the biblical account of the Davidic dynasty is an ideological literary invention from post-exilic periods.

Ancient Jewish Synagogue or Islamic Palace?

A different aspect of fake news in the ancient world, is reflected in the archaeologists’ interpretation, or misinterpretation, of the ancient remains exposed by their spades. In some cases, the misunderstandings, or the resultant “fake news,” may be attributed to some preconceived ideas or wishful thinking on the part of the archaeologists.

fig 4

Fig. 4. Aerial view of the fortified enclosure and bathhouse at Tel Bet Yerah (credit: Raphael Greenberg, Tel Aviv University Bet Yerah Expedition)

The excavations at the ancient mound of Tel Bet Yerah, also called Khirbat al-Karak, on the southwestern shore of Lake Kinneret, illustrate how an ancient building complex was once misinterpreted (Fig. 4). The Tel Aviv University expedition, the most recent excavators of the site, recorded that the long history of the excavations at the site since 1921, when Early Bronze Age remains from the third millennium BCE were first recognized during the construction of the Samakh-Tiberias road by the Hebrew Labor Corps (Greenberg, Tal and Da’adli 2017, 1–4).

Raphael Greenberg, Professor of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, explained that salvage excavations carried out in the 1940s prior to modern construction, uncovered a small bathhouse attached to a fortified enclosure, of which three towers and a wall were exposed. The excavators considered the bathhouse to be Roman in architectural concept, dismissing later inscriptions and coins as intrusive, and they identified the enclosure as a Roman fortress associated with Vespasian’s Galilee campaign at Sennabre, as Khirbat al-Karak had long been associated with Sennabre mentioned in the Roman quelling of the Jewish revolt in 66–67 CE (Stekelis and Avi-Yonah 1947).

Excavations undertaken in the 1950s by P.L.O. Guy and P. Bar-Adon representing the nascent Israeli Department of Antiquities, were consequently intended to establish the importance of this “Roman” fortified enclosure, and to thus thwart further construction on the mound. The excavations in the enclosure exposed the foundations of a large basilical[2] building with a southeast-facing apse and a fragmentary figurative mosaic floor showing signs of later repair and animal iconoclasm[3]. There was an extremely meager quantity of Byzantine pottery sherds, and later ‘Arab’ coins were assumed to be intrusive as they could hardly be associated with these Roman or Byzantine remains. The large fortified enclosure and the central basilica with the almost southward-facing apse had the excavators perplexed, as this did not conform to any familiar pattern for public buildings in the Galilee. Moreover, the existence of a Roman bathhouse attached to a Byzantine public building seemed to make little sense. A new discovery offered a previously unsuspected solution: on the flat upper face of a carved limestone pillar-base, faint carvings depicting a seven-branched candelabrum or menorah could be made out, an obvious Jewish ritual symbol (Fig. 5). This must be an ancient synagogue, with an apse facing southward toward Jerusalem!

Fig 5

Fig. 5. The pillar base with the engraved “menorah” from Tel Bet Yerah (credit: Israel Antiquities Archive)

Greenberg reports,

Guy was ecstatic; Bar-Adon, skeptical at first, soon acquiesced, and the identification of the fortified enclosure as a synagogue soon became fact. Any doubts were gradually put out of mind, and the site was declared a national park, signs were installed identifying the decorated pillar base, apse and mosaics, and Bet Yerah was added to the roster of Jewish antiquities.

However, in 1987, Shimon Applebaum rejected the synagogue identification on architectural considerations, and reverted to a late Roman date for the fortress, and he was soon followed by Ronny Reich (Reich 1993), who provided further architectural details, offering a Byzantine date, based on loose conceptual parallels, without reexamining the small finds from the excavation and without considering other historical periods.

“Curiously, but perhaps not surprisingly,” continues Greenberg,

The classical scholars and architects who addressed the Bet Yerah enclosure had never thought to reexamine the finds from the excavation. Moreover, swayed by what they assumed were Roman and Byzantine architectural features, they failed to consider other historical periods. Khirbat al-Karak had, in fact, long been associated with both the Roman toponym Ṣennabre, and the Arabic al-Ṣinnabra, the latter marking the location of a historically well-known, but as yet unidentified Umayyad palace. In effect, Umayyad coins had been discovered in the enclosure, while the 1960s excavations about 50 meters to its north had uncovered Early Islamic remains, in and above the remains of a Byzantine church.

It was only in 2002, that Donald Whitcomb of the Oriental Institute in Chicago proposed that the “synagogue” or “fortress” and the associated bathhouse should in fact be identified as the Umayyad palace of al-Ṣinnabra. A reexamination of the earlier excavation finds conducted by scholars from the Tel Aviv and Hebrew universities identified Early Islamic ceramics and coins, along with a complete absence of Roman or Byzantine artifacts, and in 2009, soundings excavated by the Tel Aviv University expedition in the basilica and bathhouse recovered Early Islamic coins in their sealed foundations (Greenberg, Tal and Da‘adli 2017, 216; Da‘adli 2017, 175).

Greenberg sums up, “The transformation was finally complete: the ‘Bet Yerah Synagogue’ was finally correctly understood as an Islamic palace.”

Genuine News or Fake News in the Ancient Near East?

The examples presented above reflect three aspects of the broad issue of news and fake news in the ancient world, amply illustrating some of the pitfalls that face the historians, archaeologists, and other scholars seeking to reveal the historical reality of the ancient Near East. In recent years, new sites are being excavated, and the field of archaeology has developed an array of new scientific methods and tools that may contribute to a deeper understanding of the available evidence.

Turning back to the relevance of the modern term “fake news” to the study of the history and the historiography of the ancient Near East, I would like to quote the words of Nadav Na’aman, Emeritus Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University, who devoted his academic life to the unfailing study of history of the ancient Near East and Early Israel. Na’aman based his research on the critical analysis of all the available ancient texts, including the biblical historical texts such as the Book of Kings, on the understanding that this approach is essential in order to extract the historical reality and to understand the historiographical processes behind the texts. At a lecture evening in honor of his 80th birthday, Na’aman related to the early days of his career saying,

At the time, the critical analysis of the biblical historical texts was considered revisionist, or even post-Zionist. Since then, Israeli biblical research has moved forward, although there are still voices claiming that this approach to the biblical sources undermines the foundations of the present day Return to Zion …. I consider that the analytical approach to the biblical text, and indeed to all texts, is even more important today due to the current increase in the transmission of “fake news,” which can only be forestalled by an in-depth evaluation and understanding of the mass of diffused materials. Consequently, a critical approach is essential, not only for research, but also as a guide to good citizenship in the modern State of Israel. [4]

Looking ahead, will future archaeologists and historians “digging up” and interpreting texts be able to distinguish between the “real news” and “fake news” in our global world? I doubt it, but only time will tell.

References

Biran, Avraham, and Joseph Naveh. 1993. “An Aramaic Stele Fragment from Tel Dan.” Israel Exploration Journal 43: 81–98.

Biran, Avraham, and Joseph Naveh. 1995. “The Tel Dan Inscription: A New Fragment.” Israel Exploration Journal 45: 1–18.

Da‘adli, Tawfiq. 2017. Stratigraphy and Architecture of the Fortified Palace. In Greenberg R., Tal O.and Da‘adli T. Bet Yerah Vol. III: Hellenistic Philoteria and Islamic al-Sinnabra. IAA Reports 61. Jerusalem: 133–178.

Greenberg, Raphael, Tal, Oren, and Da‘adli, Tawfiq. 2017. Bet Yerah Vol. III: Hellenistic Philoteria and Islamic al-Sinnabra. IAA Reports 61. Jerusalem.

Na’aman, Nadav. 2006. Ancient Israel’s History and Historiography. The First Temple Period. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.

Raphael, Kate, and Bijovsky Gabriela. 2014. “The Coin Hoard from Caesarea Maritima and the 363 CE Earthquake.” Israel Numismatic Research 9: 173–191.

Reich, Ronny. 1993. “The Bet Yerah ‘Synagogue’ Reconsidered.” Atiqot 22: 137–144.

Stekelis, Moshe, and Michael Avi-Yonah. 1947. “Excavations at Beth Yerah (Berl Kaznelson Memorial Excavations): Second Preliminary Report.” Bulletin of the Jewish Palestine Exploration Society 13: 53–64 (Hebrew; English summary).

 

[1] stele: an ancient upstanding stone slab with incised figures or inscriptions

[2] basilica: a central hall flanked by side aisles, set off by colonnades.

[3] iconoclasm: the purposeful destruction of icons and images.

[4] Professor Nadav Na’aman’s response at a recent lecture evening held at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem in honor of his 80th birthday (Hebrew speech, my translation YA). Na’aman has written  several books and over 350 articles, each one an in-depth contribution to the understanding of the genuine history of Early Israel and the Near East, and to the explanation of the historical and historio-graphical processes that produced the biblical and ancient Near Eastern texts.

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