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In Our Time: King Solomon

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 12:08, Friday, 8 June 2012

Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed King Solomon. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PMcD

king Soloman



There's a sense in which the programme this morning reminded me in its form of Solomon and his decision to slice the baby in two, in order to discover who was the real mother. Although I don't think we discovered who was the real mother. Our slicing was between minimalists and maximalists.

The last three weeks have had the subtext (on In Our Time) of scholarship about scholarship. When we discussed Marco Polo, part of the discussion was - could we believe much of what he said and, indeed, had he said it?

When we discussed the Trojan War, similar problems of the authenticity of the written and the archaeological evidence came through. And again this morning, the records about Solomon were written three or four hundred years after his death, at a time of ideological emphasis in Israel when, as Martin Palmer pointed out, they were determined to have the great man that they thought Solomon had been.

The maximalists rely quite strongly on the Scriptures, however late they were written. The minimalists tend to point out the paucity of archaeological evidence. One thing that was missing entirely was a consideration of oral evidence, although I don't know how one gets at this.

The fact seems to be that in many of the greatest of the old civilisations - the Celts would be a fine example - oral evidence was the main source of historical, mythological and cultural continuity within a society. It is galling, to say the least, that we have no access to this.

What I would contend is that although the Scriptures in the Old Testament in which Solomon was mentioned were written three or four hundred years after his death, it is not impossible that a strong and carefully schooled oral tradition (such as we know the Celts to have been), could have taken through the main points of that story, even over that long time.

Formal oral traditions prided themselves on their accuracy. In fact, one of the reasons they would not have things written down was because they thought the written word could be so easily twisted and turned, whereas the spoken word, spoken by people who had been disciplined to learn accurately, was far more reliable.

And so out into the rain this time. Went down to St James's Park yesterday to see the dismantlement of that monument to scaffolding which looked like a Meccano set. Still crowds going up the Mall, perhaps just for the sake of going up a Mall free of traffic, between the Union Flags, and a final act of homage, or more likely, I think, a continuation of the sense of amiable, congenial, decent people in large numbers, quietly enjoying themselves, without extrovert bluster and over-organised pleasure. Very pleasant. But walking in the rain in central London is always pleasant. There's always somewhere you can duck into and shelter for a while. A convenient doorway.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg


  • Comment number 1.

    Dear Melvyn

    Would it be possible to do an In Our Time about the New Left - Id love to learn more about Ep Thompson, Raymond Williams, Perry Anderson etc, and also their vision of adult education etc which I think would fit well with In Our Time and your vision of the 'mass intelligentsia'. I think its been long enough since its hey day that it wouldn't be seen as too political, would it?

    All the best

    Jules Evans

  • Comment number 2.

    There is no greater fan of 'In Our Time' than myself, but this programme rather shocked me. It took just over half the programme to get to the elephant in the room -- or rather not in the room--the complete absence of archaeological evidence for the existence of Solomon at least as a major potentate. There is simply no reliable confirmation at present of the Biblical account. This awkward reality was batted away in just three minutes by deciding that that 'maximalist' position was true and the 'minimalist' position (i.e. all the archaeological evidence pointing in the opposite direction) was wrong because the literary sources were so detailed and must be true. Using this logic, one could conclude that 'The Lord of the Rings' is also history. Instead of loosely speculating on the basis of the texts: "it was obviously a time of wealth", and galloping away to grand conclusions, it might have been useful to submit the texts themselves and their origins to critical scrutiny, rather than treating them as if they were early issues of Hansard. This was surely the most historically dubious 'In Our Time' ever.

  • Comment number 3.

    Was the picture of Solomon in the Old Testament an idealised and plastic image of his political greatness, whilst Solomon's personality remains hidden from the Text? What place does oral tradition have in achieving an accurate narrative?
    As to the first question, your discussion suggested that the "plastic idealisation" resulted from such details as the assertion that Solomon had a harem of 700 wives and 300 concubines. However, these are not "suspicious round numbers" because in an age when many could not read easily, and had no access to books, Jewish tradition insisted (unlike today) that memorisation was essential to the educative process. It was thus entirely acceptable to present figures in round numbers ("40 days and forty nights" may in fact be more exactly 42, etc), as an aid to memorisation. Other oriental dynasties had even greater harems, so was Solomon's folly partly the attempt to keep up with them? Solomon's own prayer (at the dedication of the Temple) shows the biblical writers do not idealise the man, for it mentions the King's admitting "the plague of his own heart," for "there is no man that sinneth not" (1 Kings 8:38, 46). Solomon felt he had to pay homage to the gods of his many foreign wives as part of his political strategy to guarantee international security. That this was needless folly, the Text makes clear: "his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the LORD his God . . ." "And the LORD was angry with Solomon . . . . Wherefore the LORD said . . Forasmuch as this was done of thee . . . I will surely rend the kingdom from thee, and will give it to thy servant." (1 Kings 11:4,, 9, 11). Jewish tradition does not give us a plastic image of the great man, in that three Old Testament books are attributed to him: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. The first encapsulates an awesome verbal skill and practical wisdom; the second shows Solomon in his later years disillusioned and made sceptical through the corrosive effects of a polytheistic harem; whilst the third exhibits his more youthful romantic powers, where he attempts to seduce a young rustic beauty away from her beloved-betrothed - though unsuccessfully (Solomon's Song 8:7) - so she could join the King's harem.
    As to the second question introduced, there is every indication given in the Text - even from the times of Moses and Joshua - that written records were highly prized as an essential way to preserve an accurate memory of national events and personalities. Jewish tradition attributes the accounts of Israel's Kings to the written work of Jeremiah the prophet, which is entirely possible, for Jeremiah was a fluent writer (Jer. 36:22). Whereas the post-exilic Chronicles were probably compiled by the renowned scribe Ezra (Ezra 7:6). Both writers - whether we think of them as editors, redactors or original compilers - record the several written sources they used, to describe the Kings' reigns, including Solomon's. "Now the rest of the acts of Solomon, first and last, are they not written in the book of Nathan the prophet, and in the prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite, and in the visions of Iddo the seer against Jeroboam the son of Nebat? And Solomon reigned in Jerusalem over all Israel forty years." 2 Chronicles 9:29 -30. Likewise, throughout these books we have documented the following books (a) the book of the acts of Solomon (1 Kgs. 11:41) (b) the book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel © the book of the chronicles of the Kings of Judah.1 Kgs. 14:19, 29). Both (b) and © are referenced many times throughout the narrative up to the exile. Just a cursory look at the detailed genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1-7 shows how embedded in Israelite culture written documentation was from the beginning. Oral tradition very much played second fiddle, given that Moses was schooled in the Pharaoh's Court, with all its access to the accumulated written wisdom of the ancient world.

  • Comment number 4.

    The discussion on Solomon was a great disappointment. Your panelists presented nothing more than what I learnt on a London University dip.RE course in 1961-2. Frankly, I was appalled at the paucity of knowledge and superficiality of treatment accorded to the subject.
    Why was no mention made of the findings of David Rohl in "The Test of Time",1995, and "The Lost Testament",2002?
    Is it because Rohl's work demonstrates that the supposed lack of archaeological evidence for the Davidiic-Solomonic Empire is very probably due to erroneous relative dating that seriously misplaced some archaeological findings? E.g. the stables at Megido were attributed to the time of Jeroboam 2 instead of to that of Soloman.
    As for the argument that OT writers idealized a plastic Solomon, just read the Book of Kings account of his reign and note how the historian handles the popular "pc" view of Solomon's self-proclaimed wisdom. After relating Solomon's account of how he had requested wisdom of God, the historian relates a few examples in support of the claim, but then gives much more to show the king´s lack of wisdom, culminating in national discontent, loss of empire and a divided kingdom.
    Please give us a second run on Solomon, with scholars that have done more than just skimp-read the ancient records and who do not merely retail the standard study textbooks of 50 years ago.


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