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I do not believe that Palestine was the cradle of either Jewry or Christendom.

So far as the origin of the Jews is concerned the greater probability seems

to me that the Jewish idea was shaped mainly in Babylon



Palestine in Proportion

A noted historian rereads the Bible and 

reaches new convictions on the Holy land

By H. G. Wells


The other day I was talking to an assembly of teachers and scientific workers on the problems of getting the elements of a modern world outlook into the ordinary human mind during its all too brief years of schooling and initiation. I was not persuading nor exhorting; I was exposing my thoughts about one of the primary difficulties in the way of a World Pax which which will save mankind from the destruction probable in putting the new wine of mechanical and biological power into the worn bottles of social and moral tradition. I dealt with the swiftness of life, the shortness of time available for learning and the lag and limitations of teaching.

In my survey of the minimum of knowledge needed to make an efficient citizen of the world, I laid great stress upon history. It is the core initiation. History explains the community to the individual, and when the community of interests and vital interaction has expanded to planetary dimensions, then nothing less than a clear and simplified world history is required as the framework of social ideas. The history of man becomes the common adventure of Everyman.

I depreciated the exaggerated importance attached to the national history and to Bible history in western countries. I maintained that the Biblical account of the Creation and the Fall gave a false conception of man's place in his universe. I expressed the opinion that the historical foundation for world citizenship would be better laid if these partial histories were dealt with only in their proper relation to the general development of mankind. In particular I pointed out that Palestine and its peoples were a very insignificant part of the general picture. It was a sideshow in the greater conflicts of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Nothing important, I said, ever began there or worked out there. . . .

In saying that I felt that I was stating plain matter-of-fact to well-informed hearers. But it is not what I should have thought and said, forty years ago. And since the publication of my remarks, there have been a number of retorts and replies to my statement that have made me realize how widely and profoundly and by what imperceptible degrees, my estimate of this Jewish history has been changed since my early years and how many people still remain under my earlier persuasions. Long after I ceased to be a Christian, I was still obsessed by Palestine as a region of primary importance in the history of human development. Most people still seem to do so. It may be interesting to state compactly why I have grown out of that conviction.

Evolution of a Concept

Very largely it was through rereading the Bible after an interlude of some years and with a fresh unprejudiced mind, that this change came about in my ideas. My maturer impression of that remarkable and various bale of literature which we call the Old Testament was that it had been patched a lot but very little falsified. Where falsification appeared, as in the number of hosts slain in the Philistine bickerings, it was very naive, transparent and understandable falsification.

I was not impressed by the general magnificence of the prose, about which one still hears so much. There are some splendidly plain and vivid passages and interludes of great dignity and beauty but the bulk of the English Bible sounds to me pedestrian translator's English, quite unworthy of the indiscriminate enthusiasm that has been poured out upon it. From their very diverse angles the books of the Bible have an entirely genuine flavor. It is a collection; it is not a single book written ad hoc like the Koran. And the historical parts have the quality of honest history as well as the writers could tell it.

Jewish history before the return from Babylon, as the Bible gives it, is the unpretending story of a small barbaric people whose only gleam of prosperity was when Solomon served the purpose of Hiram by providing an alternative route to the Red Sea, and built his poor little temple out of the profits of porterage. Then indeed there comes a note of pride. It is very like the innocent pride of a Gold Coast negro whose chief has bought a motor car. The prophetic books, it seems to me, reek of the political propaganda of the adjacent paymaster states and discuss issues dead two centuries ago.

One has only to read the books of Ezra and Nehemiah to realize the real quality of the return of the miscellany of settlers from Babylon, a miscellany so dubious in its origins, so difficult to comb out. But a legend grew among these people of a Tremendous Past and of a Tremendous Promise. Solomon became a legend of wealth and wisdom, a proverb of superhuman splendour. In the New Testament we hear of "Solomon in all his Glory." It was a glory like that of the Kings of Tara.

When I remarked upon this essential littleness of Palestine I did not expect any modern churchmen to be shocked. But I brought upon myself the retort from the bishops of Exeter and Gloucester that I was obsessed by "mere size" and that I had no sense of spiritual values. My friend Mr. Alfred Noyes reminded me that many pumpkins were larger than men's heads, and what had I to say to that? But I had not talked merely of physical size. I had said that quite apart from size nothing of primary importance in human history was begun and nothing worked out in Palestine. That is, I had already said quite definitely that Palestine was not a head but a pumpkin and a small one at that.

A number of people protest. But, they say, surely the great network of modern Jewry began in Palestine and Christianity also began in Palestine! To which I answer, "I too thought that." We float in these ideas from our youth up. But have we not all taken the atmosphere of belief about us too uncritically? Are either of these ideas sound? I myself have traveled from a habit of unquestioning  acquiescence to entire unbelief. May not others presently  do the same? I do not believe that Palestine was the cradle of either Jewry or Christendom.

So far as the origin of the Jews is concerned the greater probability seems to me that the Jewish idea was shaped mainly in Babylon and that the return to Judea was hardly more of a complete return than the Zionist return today. From its beginning the Jewish legend was a greater thing than Palestine, and from the first it was diffused among all the defeated communities of the Semitic-speaking world.

The synthesis of Jewry was not, I feel, very much anterior, if at all, to the Christian synthesis. It was a synthesis of Semitic-speaking peoples and not simply of Hebrews. It supplied a rallying idea to the Babylonian, the Carthaginian, the Phoenician, whose trading and financial methods were far in advance of those of the Medes, Persians, Greeks and Romans who had conquered them. It was a diffused trading community from the start.

Jewry was concentrated and given a special character far more by the Talmud literature that gathered about the Old Testament collection, than by the Old Testament story itself. Does anyone claim a Palestinian origin for the Talmud? I doubt if very much of the Bible itself was written in Palestine. I believe that in nine cases out of ten when the modern Jew goes back to Palestine he goes back to a country from which most of his ancestors never came.

When Paul started out on his earlier enterprise of purifying and consolidating Jewry before his change of front on the road to Damascus, he was on his way to a Semitic--a Jewish community there, and Semitic communities existed and Semitic controversies were discussed in nearly every centre of his extensive journeys. There was indeed a school of teachers in Jerusalem itself, but Gamaliel was of Babylonian origin and Hillel spent the better part of his life and learning in Babylon before he began to teach in Jerusalem. From the Bible itself and from the disappearance of Carthaginian, Phoenician, Babylonian national traditions simultaneously with the appearance of Jewish communities throughout the western world, communities innocent of Palestinian vines and fig trees and very experienced in commerce, I infer this synthetic origin of Jewry.

Of course if the reader is a believing Christian, then I suppose the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth at Jerusalem is the cardinal event of history. But evidently that crucifixion had to happen somewhere and just as my Christian critics can charge me with being obsessed by mere size in my deprecation of Palestine, so I can charge them with being obsessed by mere locality. If the crucifixion has the importance attached to it by orthodox theologians then, unless my reading of theology is all wrong, it must be a universal and eternal and not a temporal and local event.

Moreover nowadays there is a considerable body of quite respectable atheists, theists and variously qualified Christians who do not find in that practically unquestionably historical event--I throw no doubt upon its actuality--the centre upon which all other events revolve. There has been a steady enlightenment upon the relations of Christian doctrine, ceremony and practices to the preceding religious of Egypt, western Asia and the Mediterranean, to the Egyptian trinity, to the Goddess Isis, to the blood redemption of Mithraism. In this great assembled fabric of symbols and ideas, the simple and subversive teachings of the man Jesus who was crucified for sedition in Jerusalem, play a not very essential part.

Christianity, I imagine or something very like it, would have come into existence, with all its disputes, divisions, heresies, protestantism and dissents, if there had been no Essenes, no Nazarenes and no crucified victim at all. It was a natural outcome of the stresses and confusions that rose from the impact of more barbaric and usually Aryan-speaking conquerors, upon Egypt and upon the mainly Semitic-speaking civilizations, very much as Greek philosophy and art were the outcome of the parallel impact of the Hellenic peoples upon the Aegean cultural life. Old creeds lost their power and old usages their prestige. The temporarily suppressed civilization sought new outlets. The urgency towards new forms of social and moral statement and adaptation was very great.

Legendary Distortions

It was, I suppose, the advantage of the nexus of Semitic communities throughput the western world, that favored the spread of Judaism and of the semi-Semitic Christianity that grew side by side with it rather than the diffusion of Persian religious inventions or Greek science and philosophy. It was an unpremeditated advantage. The thing happened so. And on that basis European mentality rests. We are all more or less saturated with the legendary distortion of historical fact. It makes us a little uncomfortable, we feel a slight shock when it is called in question.

Such is the conception of Jewish and Christian origins that has replaced the distortions of my early Low Church upbringing. It has robbed Palestine of every scrap of special significance for me and deprived those gigantic figures of my boyhood, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses of their cosmic importance altogether. They were local celebrities of a part of the world in which I have no particular interest. Once they towered to the sky. I want to get them  and Palestine out of the way so that our children shall start with a better perspective of the world

Source: Current History, January 1938

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