Why Would an Atheist Care About Jerusalem?

I have never understood why there are so many postings about the control of Jerusalem on the AR site, but here is my take on it.

Yes, there is a conflict in Israel and Palestine that has been going on at least since about 1946 and which involves some very unique legal issues (sorry, I am a lawyer, so I sort of look at it that way). There is conflict and injustice there, but you can say that about 20 other places, or more, on earth as well. Personally, I don’t have a dog in this fight, as I live in Asia and am more concerned about political issues out here and closer to home, but I do comment from time to time on posts where history or applicable law is being misrepresented in favor of cheap points. I don’t care what your position is on the subject, just don’t lie about the facts to try to buttress your point.

Anyway, one issue that comes up all the time is who has a better claim to Jerusalem, which to me, as I noted, is rather a strange one to see on an atheist site, but then we talk about everything, so why not geopolitics? (Admittedly, it’s rather more cerebral than topics about guessing people’s ethnicity, or comparing tattoos, or questioning why you’re single/divorced/or attracted to sheep, or funny dog pictures – cat pictures are, of course, fully okay and are actively encouraged.)

Oddly, most of the “atheists” discussing this subject go back to historic claims on this issue. Maybe because they don’t understand international law (which is okay, it’s sort of arcane and rather boring), but oftentimes I think it’s because they are trapped in their prior religious mindset.

But let’s assume for the moment that the ex-Jew, ex-Christian, or ex-Muslim reverts to their previous belief system (as they seem to do when arguing this subject – given the copious amount of irrationality you see being spewed about it). So, let’s address the question that people dance around but don’t enunciate (because they’re supposedly here as atheists): who has the God-given right to control Jerusalem?

Let's see, Jerusalem has been controlled by non-Jews since around 597 BC when the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar II (I love that name, and would name my cat that but he would just think I was sneezing instead of calling his name) took the city, installed his own vassal king, and exported part of the population back to Babylon. He also destroyed the First Temple, which didn’t seem to bother YHWH much. Arguably, before then the Southern Hebrew Kingdom of Judah may have been a vassal of Egypt, but we will put that issue to the side for the moment. This control by non-Jews has been pretty consistent, other than a few brief years under partial Jewish control during ineffective revolts against Rome. Israel was founded in 1948. So that means that for roughly 2,545 years God didn't care about Jerusalem not being under the control of Jews at all. What did He do? Just wake up in 1948?

Jerusalem was controlled by polytheistic pagans from 597 BC until the conversion of Rome to Christianity (let’s assume a rather arbitrary date for this of 320 AD, when the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, first minted coinage with a Christian symbol on it).

After the Babylonians, the next conquer was the Jewish Messiah, the Zoroastrian (perhaps) Cyrus the Great, who defeated the ruling Babylonians and undertook to rebuild the Temple in about 538 BC, which eventually became the Second Temple.

There was a brief bit in here where Jews did retake control of Jerusalem, around 167 BC to 160 BC, but the Hebrew Bible seems to give greater weight to the action than do other contemporary sources. This is the revolt of the Maccabees, who went on to rule as vassals of the Seleucid Empire until 63 BC. It is notable that the rebellion started as an internecine purge of fellow Jews who were considered to be too Helenized (that’s right, it’s like ISIS slaughtering moderate Muslims today). The holiday of Hanukkah celebrates the re-consecration of the Second Temple by what we would consider today to be the rabid “fundamentalists.”

There is a line of scholarship that says that Jerusalem enjoyed another brief period of independence from 100 BC until 87 BC, but it is more likely that the Seleucid province was just somewhat ignored as they had more major issues preoccupying them, and after all it was a pretty worthless piece of property at the time. The Jewish ruler at the time may even have had a few hundred Jewish rebels crucified. So it seems the top ranks at least were loyal to the Seleucids when things got serious. So I won’t count this as a period of independent Jewish rule; just chaos under a dysfunctional ruling Empire. I know, there will be those who disagree, but it’s only 13 years, so you can easily adjust the conclusions at the end of the blog if you prefer.

Jerusalem was brought under direct Roman control in about 63 BC by Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (usually known as “Pompey the Great”) , when (according to Josephus, in his The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews, which is hardly an unbiased account) he intervened in a domestic civil war between two different Jewish factions, laid siege to Jerusalem and crushed it within 3 months with minimal Roman casualties. In taking possession of the city, he went into the most sacred part of the Jewish Second Temple and … didn’t die, like the Jews said any non-Jewish priest would do. In any event, Pompey was, according to Josephus, pretty nice about the whole thing and gave them some money to re-sanctify the Temple after his pagan entry had dirtied it up.

Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus, whose father was Emperor in Rome at the time, crushed a Jewish revolt and destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. He even went on to become Emperor in his own right (from 79-81 AD), and is known to history as the Emperor Titus. God obviously didn’t want to give the Jews control of Jerusalem, and wasn’t bothered about a pagan destroying the Temple – which was the ONLY place in Jewish doctrine where sacrifices to YHWH could be made. So no more pleasing aroma of burned animal flesh or unleavened bread for good old YHWH. Maybe He was going on a diet? 

The last Pagan Roman Emperor, Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, known to history as Julian (Emperor from 361 to 363 AD), was actually nice to the Jews, who benefited from his edict of  362 AD reopening the pagan temples and schools of Greek philosophy (including the rather atheistic Epicurean “Garden”) which had been closed under the previous Christian Emperors. In 363 AD he offered to rebuild the Temple, but for various ascribed reasons, many rather fanciful, it did not proceed and he died soon thereafter and could not follow-up the order.

After the Western Roman Empire fell to various waives of Germanic invaders in 476 AD (it was not a single “fall,” but this is the usual date ascribed to the end of the Empire) control of the Levant continued on through the Eastern Roman Empire, now called the Byzantine Empire to distinguish it from its Latin Western counterpart. Byzantium was Orthodox, not Roman Catholic, and spoke mostly Greek rather than Latin. But God didn’t seem to care. Byzantium lost control of Jerusalem briefly to the Sassanid Empire, from 614 to 629 AD, which was pagan, but since it didn’t last long enough to have an influence on the place, we will ignore that.

In 637 AD the Byzantine Empire lost the Levant to the newly constituted Muslims spilling out of the Arabian Peninsula, under the leadership of the Caliph Umar ibn Al-Khattāb (579-644 AD), who had been a companion of the Prophet Mohammad. Muslim rule passed through a succession of dynasties (the Umayyad and Abbasids, most notably) in the years after that. In 1077 the Jews revolted while the ruling Emir of the Seljuk Turk Empire (which had converted to Sunni Islam in 950 AD and had conquered Jerusalem in 1073 AD from the Egyptian based Fatimid Empire), was off fighting the Fatimids (who happened to be Shia Muslims) in Egypt, and on his return he sacked Jerusalem and massacred the rebels. But the Fatimids retook control of Jerusalem in 1098 AD.  Seems like YHWH preferred Muslim rule, don’t you think? Even if He couldn’t make up His mind between the Sunni and Shia versions.

Then the Christian Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099 and established the Kingdom of Jerusalem, ruled by Europeans. But it didn’t last very long, and in 1187 Muslim forces under Saladin (his better known Western name) reconquered Jerusalem, and various Muslim States held onto it after that.

As an unintended consequence of the Mongol invasions, Jerusalem was sacked by an unpaid mercenary army left over from the aborted Mongol invasion in 1244 (sort of like the Lost Czech Legion in Russia during the Russian Civil War in 1918 AD, or Xenophon’s Greek Army of the Ten Thousand, which wandered around Persia after losing their mercenary contract in 401 BC). Again, YHWH had nothing to say about it. He did like the Mongol pagans, I guess, and just wanted one last murderous fling.

A rather famous bit of Jewish folklore comes at this time, in around 1267 AD, when a Spanish Jewish scholar, Rabbi Moses ben Naḥman Girondi (Bonastruc ça (de) Porta was his Spanish name, but he is usually known as Ramban) traveled to Jerusalem and supposedly only found two Jews in the city. He established a synagogue, which is considered by some to still exist (the Ramban Synagogue). Ramban was a noted scholar, who opposed Greek philosophy and many of the relativist interpretations of the Jewish Torah, which were being popularized by Maimonides at the time.

An interesting point about Ramban’s claim is that all the Jews were gone. But that doesn’t mean they left or they were killed. It could also mean they gave up a religion that had not brought them any successes in more than 1,000 years, and they instead adopted the conquerors’ religions. This is a much more likely explanation than all the “lost tribes” nonsense, used to explain the missing people from the Kingdom of Israel and then later ascribed to the European and North African diaspora. The people were still there, they just gave up on being Jewish.  This postulation is, of course, anathema to most Jews today, as it would partly make the Palestinian’s the descendants of Jews and challenge the myth of the “wandering people.” But partial religious conversion of defeated peoples is a common occurrence throughout human history, and there is no reason to consider this part of the world to be an exception. Ramban was also something of a ritual purest, and he may not have considered people to be “Jewish” who did not follow his strict interpretations of Jewish practices and religious observations. Also, remember that no one was speaking Hebrew at this time, as the language had died out sometime in the 1st to 4th Centuries AD, and survived only as a marginal liturgical language, as was the case with Latin in the Roman Catholic Churches until the present day. It was not revived as a spoken and written language until the 19th Century AD. So you could not tell who was a Jew by their language, and they looked the same as the other local people, so…. To a strict believer in the uniqueness of the “Chosen People,” the Jews were either dead or gone, as it was unconscionable that during nearly 600 years of rule by Muslims they would have just gradually converted to Islam. Now which do you think is more likely, and which is more consistent with the mythology of being a “Chosen People”?

Anyway, in 1516 AD, the Ottoman Empire finally got around to conquering Jerusalem from the Mamluk Sultans, based in Egypt. Ottoman rule in the Levant was relatively peaceful, and they even finally defeated Napoleon’s army in 1799 which was trying to expand its foothold in Egypt. So God obviously wasn’t ready to give Jerusalem back to the Christians just yet (maybe He just preferred the Protestant English to the mostly Roman Catholic French).  Interestingly, the majority of revolts in Palestine during Ottoman rule were by the Muslim population, especially in Gaza, who were pressing for more self-rule, with the most significant revolt occurring in 1834 AD.

The Ottoman Empire happened to be on the wrong side in the Great War, and suffered dismemberment at the hands of the victorious English and French in 1918-1920, with the British taking the area with Jerusalem. This became known as the Mandatory Palestine, and lasted from 1920 until Israel’s creation in 1948 – when the British gave it away to Jewish immigrants and locals. And God was okay with that.

The only other issue we need to look at was how long the Hebrews held the territory before losing it to the Babylonians. This is pretty controversial stuff, frankly, and people tend to get really heated about it.

As I said previously, there is no archaeological evidence for any Kingdom of David or Solomon. There is no collaborating evidence from any other major nation states of the time, who seem to have written about other significant issues of the day, so you’d think that someone would have noticed the large empire claimed for David and Solomon in the Hebrew Bible. There is no monumental architecture supporting the existence of a Kingdom of David or Solomon at any time. What we do have are two controversial indications of a possible starting date for the Southern Kingdom of Judah, which included Jerusalem.

The first is a stele, which has an inscription by the Egyptian King Merneptah, who ruled from 1213 to 1203 BC. The stele commemorates a victory over the Libyans, but the last part appears to commemorate an expeditionary foray into Egyptian controlled territory, possibly in Canaan. The line is highly controversial, as obviously so much religious fervor is vested into what may be the sole existing mention of the Hebrews by an Egyptian source. The typical interpretation is that the Egyptian phonetics i-si-ri-ar may refer to a State or tribe named Israel (the Northern Kingdom), which in later years is known to have been more substantial than the State of Judah (the Southern Kingdom, which includes Jerusalem).

But there are competing interpretations, which to some scholars seem more likely. Assuming it does refer to a Hebrew collective, it is not clear if it is as a settled or sedentary people. There is also no clear indication from the stele of where these people were located.  In any event, the strongest evidence exists that the Hebrew people were nothing more than an existing tribe of Canaanites, as there is no evidence for any immigration or conquest of the area, as claimed in the Jewish Torah. Their language is a subset of Canaanite and is not related in any way to Chaldean (which is where their founder Abraham was supposedly from).

The second piece of hard evidence is another stele from somewhere between 870 (highly generous) and 750 or later BC. This is known as the Tel Dan Stele, named from the location of its discovery. Again, it was erected by a local ruler to immortalize a defeat of enemy forces, which in this case were the King of Israel and an ally of his from the “House of David.” As with the Merneptah stele, there is considerable controversy about this matter (yes, archaeologists and historians can get prissy too). Some scholars have claimed to identify the kings involved, based on non-fitting fragmentary evidence.

There is archaeological evidence starting perhaps as early as 900 BC for a Kingdom in the region ascribed to the State of Israel, however, whenever it was founded, it fell in 722 BC to the Assyrian Empire. There are a number of historical references to the State of Israel, and the rule of the Kings Omri and perhaps Ahab, which was the Northern Kingdom and which did not include Jerusalem as part of its territory and had Samaria as its capital. Even according to the Hebrew Bible, the people of Israel were not monotheistic and did not wholly follow YHWH, which is why the people of Judah believed they were destroyed by the rapacious Assyrians. The kings of Israel are routinely depicted as evil in the Hebrew Bible (which was written by the people of Judah), and many of the most memorably villainous characters are from Israel (such as Jezebel, Queen of Israel and wife to King Ahab – who was an historical ruler of perhaps considerable import). But Israel was a significant mini-State in the region in its day, and the archaeology supports this, whereas the Southern Kingdom of Judah only really shows up after the fall of Israel, perhaps as a result of Israel refugee inflows?

So the Merneptah stele offers some evidence for an earlier date of a group of people called Israel, but it offers nothing about the control of Jerusalem. If we take the Tel Dan stele of evidence of an organized settlement related to a “House of David,” as opposed to a nomadic tribe, then we have a reference for what would become the State of Judah, but there is no reference as to where it existed. There is no convincing archaeological evidence for a State of Judah until quite late in the record (although the area of Jerusalem was inhabited going back to 4,500 or 5,000 BC). But let’s be generous, and say that occupation as an organized State, which is the precursor to the State of Judah, starts at the somewhat arbitrary date of 870 BC.

Lastly, we must recognize that for many hundreds of years before there was any hint of a Hebrew State, there was periodic Egyptian occupation of the region, although mostly focused on the coastal areas, but at times being quite extensive. Unlike the currently mythical Kingdom of David and Solomon, the Egyptians left forts, pottery and substantial other remains behind to confirm their occupation and control of the area. But despite ample evidence in other locations, there is no direct evidence of Egyptian occupation of Jerusalem itself, mainly because it wasn’t even much of a town before the Eigth Century BC, and Egyptian interest in the area goes back about 1,000 years or more before then. So we won’t give the pagan Egyptians any credit for control of what was to become Jerusalem. But if we were looking at who had the best historical claim to what is now Israel, the Egyptians would probably beat everyone with not only the first claim but the longest period of at least partial occupation. Therefore, our clock starts with Judah, in 870 BC.

So, how does this all work out?

Jewish control would be from 870-597 BC, 167-160 BC, and 1948-2014 AD (admittedly, legally controlling only half of Jerusalem, but we will count it as 100%). Total time in control of Jerusalem: 346 years.

Christian control was from 320-361 AD, 363-637 AD, 1099-1187 AD, and 1920-1948 AD, encompassing Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christianity. Total time in control of Jerusalem: 431 years.

Pagan control (excluding the Egyptians during the Bronze and early Iron Age) lasted from 597-167 BC, 160 BC – 320 AD, and 361-363 AD, covering a wide range of religions which coexisted pretty peacefully except for the occasional Jewish revolt. Total time in control of Jerusalem: 912 years.

Muslim control covered from 636-1099 AD, and 1187-1920 AD. Total time in control of Jerusalem: 1,196 years.

Now, who do you think God really likes best, and who has the best claim?

Frankly, it’s all nonsense. There are hundreds and maybe even thousands of former “kingdoms” around the world with claims to what they consider to be “ancestral lands,” often granted to them by some divine power. Even when you strip out the overt reference to the divine, people are basically trying to justify religious claims based on some dubious reading of the historical record. Ok, god didn’t give us the land, but it’s ours anyway because of past ownership…. Really? If that is the case, then I want Bohemia back, please. If you can’t deliver it, I’ll take a check (that is a pun on the sound of the word Czech, in case you didn’t get my Slavonic sense of humor). Or maybe you can get Sweden to pay me some reparations for the carnage its troops inflicted upon it during the 30 Years War.

When you find yourself arguing on these sorts of positons, please, stop. Take a step back and ask yourself “why do I hold these strong feelings?” Chances are, its religious indoctrination or in some cases, sadly, ethnic bigotry. An atheist should aspire to be above both of those base motivations.

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