H. G. M. Williamson is an Old Testament scholar who served until recently as the Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford University. His latest book, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Holy Land, co-edited with Robert C. Hoyland, is now available.
Welcome! Before we begin, please tell us a bit about yourself and your academic career?
I am now retired (though still very active in research and writing) and live, as I have for decades, in a very small town on the East coast of England called Southwold (Southold on Long Island was started by early pilgrims from here!). I am very active in the local church among other things. I began my undergraduate studies in Cambridge in Theology in 1966 and after later completing my research degree there I taught Hebrew and Aramaic in the Oriental Studies Faculty till 1992. I was then moved to the Regius Chair of Hebrew in Oxford. Over the years the principal (though not exclusive) areas of my research have been the books of Chronicles, of Ezra and Nehemiah, and of Isaiah.
As well as teaching language and texts I used to be quite involved in archaeology, with many seasons digging at Lachish and Jezreel. I used also to do a lot on the admin front with archaeological societies in this country. I also had a lot to do with the British Academy, even being Vice-President for a while.
I am married with three children, who in turn are all married with children of their own. Over the years, all three families have moved back to Southwold from London, so it is great to be able to see plenty of them all.
When was your interest in religion and theology first kindled, and when did you realize it was something to which you wanted to devote your professional life?
I was brought up in a church-going family and was also helped in childhood and teenage years by attendance at Beach Missions, camps, and so on, though of course I also had plenty of ups and downs during those years.
I had always planned to be a lawyer but decided that to study academic law at university would be rather boring and a waste of time. So I thought that out of interest I would do Theology as my degree and then change to law afterwards. I always intended to include the Biblical languages in that because I had specialized in languages at school.
During my second undergraduate year one of my teachers asked if I had considered doing research.
Well, I hadn’t, but once the thought was planted in my mind it seemed like a very attractive possibility (not least, the lifestyle of my teachers was appealing!). So after a year away doing full time church work I returned to Cambridge and, as they say, never looked back.
Money for my further studies fell remarkably into my lap and just as I was finishing my doctorate there was an unexpected opening for a junior teacher in Oriental Studies (not my previous Faculty). So it all seemed just to fall into place. Furthermore, since the Regius Chair in Oxford was what we call a Crown Appointment, the first I knew about it was a letter from the Prime Minister asking if he could recommend my name to the Queen (things are handled differently nowadays, I should add). So I never had to apply for a job in the usual way throughout my career!
When you look back on your first visit to the Holy Land, what singular memory stands out as the most poignant?
I first went for the second of my three years of study for the doctorate. I was married by then, with one child (two months old when we went) and we were there for a year. So it is difficult to single out one single thing as we did so much academically, in terms of touring and visiting, and meeting many people both in the University and the church network throughout the land.
If I must choose, I suppose it would be climbing Mt. Sinai with a group of researchers from the Ecole Biblique. I was extremely privileged to be able to go with them (the only Protestant among Catholics!) and we were among the first to enter Sinai after the Yom Kippur war. The whole trip was of remarkable historical interest, and of course it was awe-inspiring to visit the St Catherine’s monastery at the foot of the Mount. But to climb at night and emerge on the peak just as dawn was breaking was just something else.
What single book would you recommend to laymen who want to more fully understand the biblical history of Israel?
Difficult, because the history of the early period, at least, is very complicated and quite controversial. I think M. B. Moore and B. E. Kelle, Biblical History and Israel’s Past (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011) sets things out as well and fairly as it can be done, but some readers might find it a bit “text-booky.”
The first half of our Oxford Illustrated History of the Holy Land (2018) tries to do just what you have asked, of course, but it is not for me to comment on its quality!
Briefly summarize the context of Ezra and Nehemiah and provide an example of one unanswered question about the books you find especially intriguing.
Ezra and Nehemiah give some episodes in the life of ancient Judah when it was just a tiny and very insignificant province in the mighty Persian Empire. So the community was far from being a sovereign state, as it had been when there were kings in Israel and in Judah earlier on.
The intriguing question beyond the purely political, therefore, is to see how what was originally civic law in a nation state developed into religious law of a community which eventually became what we know of as Judaism. This shift from the secular to the religious and how the two relate thereafter is something which we still need to consider carefully in our modern world.
What is “The Oxford Illustrated History of the Holy Land” about and what are the two special features that distinguish it from similar works?
The book aims to provide the historical context within which two of the great monotheistic religions began and which was also of crucial importance in the development the third.
That is why we call it the Holy Land rather than the Levant, Israel, Palestine, or whatever. The precise geography of what we are covering therefore changes over the centuries, depending on where the significant action was located.
Of course, basic political history has to be covered to give the essential background, but we aim also to illustrate how that impacted on the birth and development of the three faiths.
This is done from a detached viewpoint, however. We are not trying to argue whether any or none of the faiths is ”true”, or anything like that. But we do want readers to be better informed about how they developed, what the historical value of the major texts may or may not be, and so on.
Helped by numerous very beautiful illustrations, we try to make the fruits of the best scholarship on these topics accessible to non-academic readers.
Another difference from a normal history book is that we have also included three chapters more narrowly focussed on what the three religions have in common: pilgrimage, veneration of holy sites, and a sacred text.
We are aware that, in the footsteps of many others over the centuries, some of our readers will visit (or will have visited) the Holy Land for all sorts of personal reasons. When they do so they are often confused by the massive variety and age of the sites they visit as well as why holy sites take the form that they do. Some initially find all this rather off-putting, because it is different from what they might have expected. We hope that the book will help them to have a more sympathetic understanding of why things are as they are.
Tell us how the book came about (e.g., did you approach Oxford or did they approach you? What were initial guidelines for chapters and word counts, etc)?
Oxford University Press already has a well-established Illustrated History series. I don’t know who in their editorial department first thought of this one, but the initiative came from them. They first recruited my fellow editor Robert Hoyland because of his tremendous expertise on Islamic history—something which has determined so much of the history in that part of the world. It was he who then recommended that I should join him in order to cover the earlier (basically the Biblical) period.
Apart from determining that we should “start with Abraham” (after all, the land had been inhabited for many millennia before that), the Press gave us a pretty free hand to propose our own chapter divisions, potential authors, and so on. It all had to be formally approved, of course, and there was some helpful discussion on details, but the staff at the Press were always supportive rather than directive. So if you think it has not been planned well, you can blame us as editors, not the Press!
How were contributors selected for the different chapters and what guiding principles did you provide at the beginning of the process?
The main criterion for selection was scholarly expertise on the subject of the relevant chapter, coupled with a proven ability to write for non-specialists.
So far as the Biblical period was concerned (divided into five chapters), I was anxious that on the one hand what was written should be based on the best and most up-to-date scholarship (including archaeology, of course) without fear or favour to any preconceived ideas.
I selected authors who I knew were internationally respected and who would provide an honest presentation of the relevant evidence, not distorted to suit any particular religious standpoint on the one hand or a desire to be as extreme on the other hand as possible in order merely to shock (both faults are sadly all too evident in some other people’s writing).
At the same time I was acutely aware that for many readers the Bible is not only authoritative but also completely accurate in whatever it seems to present as history. To suggest an alternative historical account is therefore often initially thought somehow to discredit its religious value and authority. So as a guideline I told each contributor not to compromise in any way on their understanding of the history but to do so in a gentle and sympathetic manner rather than being aggressive in their approach.
You use British Prime Minister David Lloyd George to illustrate a delineation mark between the political and religious significance of the Holy Land. How did you decide upon using that particular example to open your book?
I knew that “definition” of the Holy Land by Lloyd George from childhood and so it was second nature to use it to introduce our Introduction!
Of course, when for this purpose I looked more closely into the circumstances when he said it and found it was in relation to the division of the Levant between the French and the British after the First World War, I realized it would fit even better than I had first thought, because that is precisely the point at which we had already agreed to bring our history to a close (we were anxious not to get drawn into more modern political controversies). So the answer to your question is “serendipity” rather than careful planning!
What other city most closely approximates the cultural and religious significance the Holy Land holds for Jews, Christians, and Muslims? (The purpose of this question is to illustrate the importance of the Holy Land by showing just how incomparable it is to even the closest approximation.)
There is no other city world wide that can match Jerusalem as a focal point for all three faiths. Cairo perhaps comes closest—there are hugely significant connections there with all three (though perhaps I do not need to go into all that now). To some extent the same is true for Constantinople/Istanbul (less so for Jews, however) and of course in the modern world several major cities resonate with different aspects of some of the faiths (Baghdad, St Petersburg, Rome, Paris, London, New York), but none is simultaneously held in quite the same respect, if not awe, as Jerusalem by all three.
If you could go back in time and observe any event in the Holy Land, what would you most want to witness and why?
Of course as a Christian I ought to say the resurrection of Jesus, but as that was not actually witnessed directly by anybody, that will not do.
So let me put on my scholarly hat instead and say I should like to witness the events in Jerusalem in 701 bce. That was when the Assyrian king Sennacherib came to put down the rebellion by Hezekiah.
It raises just about every kind of issue a historian of the Biblical period has to deal with.
We have several Biblical accounts (2 Kings 18–20; Isaiah 36–39; 2 Chronicles 32) which do not agree among themselves and which include even within themselves variant and seemingly contradictory accounts of what happened (some more believable than others).
We also have Sennacherib’s own accounts, which differ yet again in some significant respects.
And we have the testimony of archaeology as well (including Lachish, where I dug, and where Sennacherib had his headquarters for part of the time); this includes both sites in Israel (including Jerusalem) and also the magnificent reliefs from Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh (in modern Iraq) as well as his historical tablets, all now mostly in the British Museum in London.
Many books and even more articles have been published over the years to try to sort this all out, and they show that all critical tools have to be employed in concert: textual criticism (complex for this material), literary analysis to distinguish the various sources and to get to grips with what each one was trying to get across, straightforward historical criticism as one attempts to make sense of such a confusing mass of varied evidence, and so on.
Perhaps if I were there with my video camera I could then get a much better understanding of how to evaluate the sources and this would make me better when I went on to study other problematic events.