Michener & the archeology of Jewish continuity

When Michener visited Israel in 1963, he must have been influenced by the archeology that he saw.

 THE WOODEN box containing 15 silver coins from the Maccabean period was discovered in the Judean Desert earlier this year. (photo credit: DAFNA GAZIT/ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)
THE WOODEN box containing 15 silver coins from the Maccabean period was discovered in the Judean Desert earlier this year.

I happened to be reading about the Hasmoneans in The Source, the popular 1965 novel written by James Michener, when Israeli news sources (Jerusalem Post, December 8) described the discovery of a lead slingshot bullet at an archeological dig in Yavne, Israel.

The 2200 year-old bullet, almost two inches in length, bears the Greek inscription, “Victory for Heracles and Hauron,” two Pagan gods worshiped by the citizens of Yavne during the second century BCE.

The announcement, coming shortly before the onset of Hanukkah, suggests that the inscribed bullet could have been used to unnerve Hasmonean soldiers fighting Hellenistic influences in Judea. Less than a week later, there was an article about a cache of silver coins from the Maccabean period which was discovered in the Judean desert (Jerusalem Post, December 13).

I read and enjoyed Michener’s book when it was first published more than 50 years ago. But I was reading it again because of an interesting article published in 2020, in Toronto Sun by Tarek Fatah, a prominent Canadian Journalist of Pakistani origin. In it, Fatah wrote, “Reading James Michener’s, The Source in the late 1960s, made me realize that, far from being European occupiers of Palestine, as we were told, the Jews had been living around Jerusalem and the Levant for more than a millennium. In fact, it was the Arabs under Caliph Umar Al-Khattab who first occupied the lands of Palestine in the year 637 CE by dislodging the Byzantines.”

Michener’s The Source is essentially a comprehensive description of the history of the Jewish people, told in relation to a 1964 dig at a hypothetical tell (Makor), a hill of stratified debris from successive generations of inhabitants. The book, (17 chapters, with over 900 pages) begins with the Stone Age, then moves onto early concepts of a supreme being, before reaching the Bronze Age, the early Hebrews and the time of King David etc. The focus of the Hasmonean chapter, (In the Gymnasium) is on the increasingly restrictive religious life – culminating in the banning of circumcision – experienced by the Jews of Judea under the domination of the Seleucid Greeks.

Beyond the Hasmonean period, The Source goes on to the rule of Herod, the First Jewish-Roman War, the writing of the Talmud, the Arab conquest, the Crusades, the golden age of Safed (Tzfat), the demise of the Ottomans, and the emergence of the State of Israel.

Jewish life in Israel through the ages

THROUGHOUT THE book, Michener emphasizes the continuity of Jewish life in the Land of Israel. He draws attention, for example, to the large and impressive synagogues built during the fourth to sixth centuries CE, and notes that in the fourth century, the Jews of Tiberius consisted of a lively community of 13 synagogues. He refers to the Aliyah of Jews from such places as Florence during the crusades, and to the large and economically prosperous 16th century Jewish community of Safed.

When Michener visited Israel in 1963, he must have been influenced by the archeology that he saw. He was clearly impressed by the ruins of the synagogues at Kfar Nahum (Caperneum), Bar’am and Beit Alfa, as they are mentioned more than once in his book.

The mosaic floor at Beit Alfa may have been the inspiration for the mosaic synagogue floor at Michener’s fictional tell, while the water tunnel at Megiddo is a likely candidate as the model for the water tunnel that is an important part of the story of Makor. Michener was certainly aware of the Bar-Kochba letters, critical proof for the occurrence of the Bar-Kochba revolt, although these were only discovered in 1960 and 1961, shortly before his visit.

The smoking gun, so to speak, as far as Michener’s intent is concerned, is found near the end of the book, when a visiting Dutch priest, Father Vilspronck is speaking to Cullinane, the American archeologist in charge of the Makor dig. Vilspronck is speaking of his discovery of Jewish persistence in the Holy Land. He notes that when he was a student he was taught that there were no Jews left after the failed revolt of 70 CE, only to find out that in 135 CE they launched an even bigger revolt (the Bar-Kochba revolt) against the Romans.

He goes on: “Now we begin to excavate these synagogues of the fourth century and we find that there were more Jews here than before… And 300 years after that, when the Muslims came, we still find large Jewish populations. And 400 years after that, when the crusaders came, there were still Jews around,” adding, “Something was going on here that the history books did not tell us.”

The many digs that have taken place since Michener’s 1963 visit, such as the excavations at Tzipori, as well as finds like the Hasmonean period sling bullet and coins mentioned earlier, have added to the archeological evidence on which The Source is based. At a time when some question the historic validity of the Zionist enterprise, and many see the establishment of the State of Israel as a European colonial enterprise, Michener’s book tells another story; the story of an oppressed people who never stopped clinging to their indigenous homeland.

The writer is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a retired professor at the University of Waterloo.