User:Vuara/Phoenicia Knoweldge Sources

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Sources of Modern Knoweldge About Phoenicia

Written Records and Archaeology

Until the late 19th century most of the information about pre-Hellenistic Eastern Mediterranean came from the Hebrew Bible and from various Greek and Latin sources.

While the Hebrew Bible was largely completed by 300 BC, its attitude toward contemporary religions of the area was generally quite hostile, so that its references to these religions may not only devalue them but also exaggerate or distort various aspects of them. On the other hand, Israelite religion was itself an outgrowth of, as well as a reaction to, the religions of its neighbours, so that many features of Israelite religion found in the Hebrew Bible exemplify the religions of the larger area. The only sure guide to making such discriminations is the knowledge gained from indigenous documents.

Greek and Latin sources may be less hostile, but they are also much later, from the Roman period. While they may be more reliable in their description of the contemporary character of the religions of the area, that character may have been significantly different after several centuries of Hellenism from what it had been even in the middle of the preceding millennium. Notable among the Greek and Latin sources are De Dea Syra ("About the Syrian Goddess") from the 2nd century AD, attributed to Lucian of Samosata, and the section of Eusebius of Caesarea's Praeparatio evangelica ("Preparation for the Gospel"; 4th century AD) that cites extracts from a History of Phoenicia by Philo of Byblos (c. AD 100); Philo himself claimed to be translating the work of an early Phoenician priest, Sanchuniathon. While indigenous sources now confirm isolated elements of this allegedly early description of Phoenician religion, its distortions also have become more demonstrable. Philo's history is in fact an attempt to recount early Phoenician history by constructing a systematic chronological sequence of events out of the various local traditions of his time and interpreting the latter euhemeristically -- that is, by treating gods and myths as representative of historical individuals and events.

Beginning in the late 18th century, the finds of early explorers of the area and subsequently of archaeologists engaged in more systematic excavation have produced a rapidly increasing number of firsthand sources. Successive generations of epigraphers and philologists have deciphered the texts and attained an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the languages. Unfortunately, the texts that are best understood tend to be formulaic and yield only the most external kinds of information about the religion, while the more distinctive texts, which seem more interesting and promise to be more revealing, are usually more difficult to penetrate.

Cuneiform archives from various 2nd-millennium sites and from the 3rd millennium at Ebla in northwestern Syria provide some documentation of the religion. The most abundant documentation comes from the 14th- and 13th-century remains of the city of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra), on the Mediterranean coast of Syria. This includes the only native examples of extended religious narrative. It also comprises the widest range of genres, including myths, legends, liturgical texts, god lists, omens, and correspondence.

From the 1st millennium come scores of Phoenician inscriptions, both from the Phoenician coast and from other areas of the eastern Mediterranean; neo-Hittite hieroglyphic inscriptions and Aramaic inscriptions from northern Syria, almost all from the 9th and 8th centuries; and Moabite, Ammonite, and Hebrew inscriptions. These are very limited in genre, and relatively few are more than a few lines long.

Uninscribed materials from excavated sites throughout the eastern Mediterranean supplement the picture: they include the foundations of temples, temple furnishings, figurines, images of gods and their emblems, and scenes of gods, myths, and religious activities on reliefs and seals. However, criteria for identifying religious materials have not always been carefully considered, nor has discriminating attention been given to the question of the reflection of religious life in material remains in general. It is often difficult to correlate with confidence written and unwritten materials.

In spite of these new and ever-growing sources of knowledge, the resulting picture is still very irregular. While there is an unparalleled variety of sources, covering a century and a half, from the large cosmopolitan city of Ugarit, other written materials give a much more limited picture. For many periods, areas, and topics there are no written remains. Descriptions of the religion of any one period or area (with the exception of Ugarit) are extremely limited and superficial. Generalizations about the religions of the eastern Mediterranean may well prove to have significant exceptions as some of these gaps are filled by new discoveries.