Why did the Bible outlast Babylon? Millions of people, over and over, from the returning Judean exiles to the early Church to people of faith today, claim to be the "real Israel." Many acquire a new past, others actively choose to invoke and remember an old one, others forget. Is conversion a form of recovered memory, a kind of identity fraud? What do different people who claim to be part of the "real Israel" have in common? Scholars of religion and anthropology, as well as Biblical historians, struggle over what it means to convert and what kind of pasts are authentic.
What fascinates me is when it turns out that the early history of something--let's say, the invention of the memory of Israel--can shed light on its subsequent history, not because the origins tell you everything, but because a kind of internal logic might be revealed that is played out over and over again, different and the same in different ways each time.
This sometimes requires going back in time to before we even realize something was invented. My colleague and namesake Seth Richardson studies Babylonian history. I popped into his office today to say hi and talk about ancient political theory, as is my wont. Spying a book on his desk, we launched into a short talk on a crucial event in ancient Near Eastern history: the meeting of the (semi)nomadic concept of "the people" as the protagonist of politics and ritual with the technology of writing. The book that sparked it was Daniel Fleming's fantastic Democracy's Ancient Ancestors , a close look at the first time nomadic politics encountered writing, in the Old Babylonian city-state of Mari. Here politics wasn't defined by borders in space (the matum "land" or alum "settlement") but by kinship. The political relationships this system creates between people could persist across space and, once imagined in writing, across time as well. The written image of a "people" created an amazingly powerful model for emulation. Why?
Seth's one-liner: "it makes for a better memory."
I thought this was a beautiful way to get at the power of the concept of Israel as an imagined--and real--community that flows around the borders of states and persists across space and time. The people as fact and symbol, legal fiction and memory. And I'm not the first to be enchanted by it. Indians and British, South African Lemba and Nigerian Igbo have all imagined themselves to be lost tribes of Israel. What's stunning is when genetic evidence shows that some of them actually are.
The crucial thing about the genetic evidence is that, while it's hard science, it instantly becomes culture as soon as people think about it and do anything with it. While such proof changes everything, in other ways it changes nothing. The struggles over identity and meaning--encapsulated in the way that DNA itself becomes a symbol--continue. In this article, Invisible Races, written for the African/American race and culture journal Transition, I investigate how the Bantu-speaking Lemba, who have an unquestionable DNA link to the ancient Israelite priesthood, complicate the already dizzying "who is a Jew" argument.