In search of ancient Israel

Ancient Israel lived in an era surrounded by the rise and fall of great empires – the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians and Hittites. It was this world, a literate world humming with life and war, that you will decipher texts and archaeological records to reconstruct their history and origins.

ANU CCE languages icon

Teacher Date Day Time Sessions Fee Enrol
Paul Howles 2017 dates TBC 6-8pm 6 $ Join our mailing list

Course outline

During the past 150 years intense interest in the archaeology of the near east has brought to light the ancient civilisations of this region. In popular imagination this is dominated by the impressive monumental temples and pyramids of Egypt, the tomb of Tutankhamen, the Rosetta stone, and the winged bulls and palace reliefs from the ruined royal cities of Assyria. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Numerous sites in this region have been excavated, their artefacts studied and classified. The written languages of the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites and other peoples of this world have all been deciphered, enabling us to read their (surviving) literature and reconstruct their history. It was in this world, a literate world humming with life and the rise and fall of states and empires, that the ancient Israelites lived and wrote.

The course will include the following topics:

  • A brief introduction to archaeology, and the problem of the findings of “dirt archaeology” versus the historical “claims” made in contemporary documents from the ancient near east - including the Old Testament.
  • The use of the Old Testament as a historical document, including the manner in which “Higher Criticism” and the modern “Minimalist” school have interpreted this document.
  • Chronology of the ancient near east, with specific reference to Israel.
  • A synopsis of the histories of Egypt and Mesopotamia. This is necessary to understand the history of ancient Israel, which was played out between and influenced by these two major civilisations.
  • What does the Old Testament say about Israelite origins, and when do the Israelites first appear in the archaeological record. Topics will include the mention of “Israel” in the famous “Hymn of Victory” stela of Merenptah and the sudden appearance of many new settlements in Palestine during the early Iron Age.
  • Major archaeological findings from the Near East, particularly textual, that illuminate ancient Israel.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course, you should learn:

  • how history is reconstructed
  • the difficulties in reconstructing the history of ancient Israel with respect to the histories of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia
  • the earliest extant texts of the Old Testament
  • the earliest examples of writing that have come from the area of ancient Israel
  • that the history of ancient Israel should be seen as part of the history of the ancient Near East (and not as something separate – which it often has been)
  • the theories that have been proposed for the origin of the ancient Israelites
  • of the archeologically excavated texts that record an individual in the Old Testament and/or record an event that is referred to in the Old Testament
  • that there is no extra-biblical evidence for the Exodus or the Patriarchs, and their historicity can be approached through the idea of ‘plausibility’ against the known backdrop of ancient Near Eastern history

Who should enrol

Anyone interested in history, in film, and in how we think about the past.


Paul Howles has a Bachelor of Arts degree in ancient history and archaeology. He has participated on excavations in the Middle East and maintains an active interest in the history and archaeology of the region.

Updated:  22 November 2016/ Responsible Officer:  CCE Manager/ Page Contact:  CCE Webmaster