Under Augustus’ imperial rule, the view widened beyond the city of Rome to include the empire, peace within the empire,

Caesarea Maritima, water pipeline
Caesarea Maritima, water pipeline

and the participation of all inhabitants, even including slaves, in the political and religious life of the city of Rome and the empire.

After achieving prosperity, the cities of Asia Minor in Hellenistic and Roman times looked for myths that linked their own past with Greece’s great past.

The pattern was the same everywhere: prosperity created the search for each city’s own significance; its own greatness was explained and idealised through a mythical past and the link to an even older culture.

In her doctoral thesis Mythische Vorväter, published in revised form as a book in 1993, Tanja Susanne Scheer describes many interesting examples of cities outside the Greek mother country.


III  2  The models

Rome provided two models for the search for an identity:

Iraq, Aqar Quf, palm tree
Iraq, Aqar Quf, palm tree

(1) Augustus’ imperial rule and (2) the formal restoration of the Roman republic.

The Roman republic emphasised the national role of the city of Rome and the rule of the Roman senate, that was formally restored and that set down the privileges of the Roman aristocracy and citizens.


The contemporary solution to the legitimacy problem at the time, as was practised both in Rome and in many Hellenistic cities,


was not to found a new religion, but to create a new gallery of ancestors by means of a fictional literature. This gave the citizens the sense of being descended from great forebears, justifying the cultural standards and material prosperity they enjoyed.

The wide dissemination of Jewish settlements, the spread of the Jewish population beyond Judea and the increasing prevalence of reading and writing in Roman times all meant that the Jewish culture was already half-way to becoming a written culture. Only the holy texts had not yet been written down.


III   The Starting Point

Schauer, Markus: Aeneas Dux in Vergils Aeneis. Eine literarische Fiktion in augusteischer Zeit, Munich 2007; Scheer, Tanja Susanne: Mythische Vorväter. Zur Bedeutung griechi­scher Heroenmythen im Selbstverständnis kleinasiati­scher Städte, Munich 1993

In the traditional narrative, the reasons behind the origins of Judaism and Christianity are never questioned;


but the answer is provided in the eternal will of a divine being whose decisions we humans are not to question.

The new narrative must of course pose the “why” question; it is the question about the historical situation within which the origins of the Jewish and Christian religions become comprehensible.

To put it another way: what new social conflicts demanded new religious and moral answers and what answers did the Jewish and Christian religions give?


For the Jews, then, the donkey was their holy animal. Tacitus confirms this in the legend

Nineveh, ancient relief
Nineveh, ancient relief

of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, in which donkeys also play a role. Why the donkey?

The solution to the riddle is an economic one. Long before camels became the typical beast of burden in the caravans, the donkey was the animal that transported goods over long distances for trade purposes. So the donkey’s status as the Jews’ holy animal indicates its economic use for long-distance trade.



The costly cult statue was stolen by Antiochos IV Epiphanes (175 – 164 BC) when he plundered the temple in Jerusalem in 169 BC

Nineveh, ancient statue
Nineveh, ancient statue

on his return from his second Egyptian campaign: Josephus CA II, 7. The cult statue was clearly never replaced, so that from then on, Yahweh was worshipped without a statue.

The contact with Hellenistic philosophy that was critical of animal cults was probably the reason why the cult statue was never replaced.



In the Yahweh temple in Jerusalem, Yahweh was worshipped as a cult statue in the form of a costly donkey bust. Josephus writes:

Nineveh, ancient city wall
Nineveh, ancient city wall

“In the temple in Jerusalem, as Apion impudently asserts, the Jews set up a donkey’s head; they pray to it and address their entire worship to it (CA II, 7). Tacitus reports that the Jews set up the holy image of a donkey in the Holy of Holies in their temple (Histories V, 4).

The same accusation was made against the Christians in the 3rd century AD: Minicius Felix writes in his dialogue Octavian (28, 7) that the Christians consecrated a donkey’s head. A well-known caricature from the 2nd/3rd century AD on the Palatine (now Rome, Antiquarium Palatin Inv. 381403) shows a soldier standing below a crucified man with a donkey’s head. The inscription reads: Alexaminos praying to his god.

The Gospels describe Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey colt, cheered by the crowd: Matt. 21:1ff; cf. Zech. 9:9. In the Old Testament, the prophet Balaam rides on a donkey mare with visionary powers: Num. 22:23ff. Since animal gods were worshipped all over the Middle East, the principle of the simplest explanation (Occam’s razor) makes it very plausible that the Jews did the same.


II  2  Yahweh and the donkey cult

The traditional master narrative about Yahweh states:
Yahweh was the God of the Jews from ancient times; he was worshipped

Assur, arched gateway, reconstruction
Assur, arched gateway, reconstruction

as the one God in pre-Hellenistic Israel. Echoes of polytheistic ideas can be explained by the fact that the Jews came into contact with heathen gods in the world around them. Heathen ideas of God influenced the story of Balaam and the donkey (Num. 22:33ff).

My theses about Yahweh:
The Jewish idea of God in pre-Hellenistic times is very similar to that of their ancient eastern environment. The Jews honoured Yahweh (also Yahu or Yao) as their main God, and other gods alongside him.

The Jews in Elephantine in Egypt worshipped a trio of gods, Yahu, Anath-Bethel and ‘shm-Bethel. That was not a sign of the decline of former monotheism; it was the typical form of the Jewish religion.


The reasons behind the successful Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids were more political

Assur, brick ruins
Assur, brick ruins

than religious. The Maccabees / Hasmoneans set up a Hellenistic state on Jewish soil that lost its political independence in the conflict with the Romans, but gained a new cultural identity under Herod and his successors.


In pre-Hellenistic times, as long as the barren land was unable to support their livelihoods with agriculture and grazing,

Babylon, palace, reconstruction
Babylon, palace, reconstruction

the inhabitants of Judea and Samaria hired themselves out as soldiers and guards to protect trade caravans. Soon they also became traders over short or long distances. This led to the establishment of Jewish trade settlements in many Middle Eastern cities.

Jerusalem resembled other ancient oriental cities in Syria with a similar economic structure, such as Palmyra, described by M. Rostovtzeff in his book Caravan Cities (Oxford 1932).