Israeli Archaeologists Discover What Ancient Judeans Actually Ate

Analysis of fish bones unearthed across Israel suggests observance of kashrut only began in late Second Temple period, centuries after the Bible was written

Ariel David
Ariel David
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Giving the notorious letter to Uriah: Eating catfish may have been the least of King David's sins (painted by Pieter Pietersz Lastman in 1611)
Giving the notorious letter to Uriah: Eating catfish may have been the least of King David's sins (painted by Pieter Pietersz Lastman in 1611)Credit: Detroit Institute of Arts / Kuns
Ariel David
Ariel David

A study of fish bones unearthed at archaeological sites across Israel shows that ancient Judeans commonly ate non-kosher seafood, seemingly ignoring the biblical ban on such fare for centuries.

The ancient Israelites apparently feasted on catfish, sharks and other taboo catch during the entire First Temple period, including the days of the mythical kingdom of David and Solomon, and well into the Second Temple era. Only from beginning of the Roman period, in the first century B.C.E., is there clear archaeological evidence that the Jews were eschewing prohibited fish, concludes the study published Tuesday in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.

The study is based on the painstaking identification of some 21,000 fish bones spanning more than 2,000 years, unearthed over the last decades at 30 archaeological sites, including in Jerusalem, the capital of the biblical Kingdom of Judah.

“What immediately drew our attention was that in periods when, supposedly, the biblical laws already existed, people were consuming non-kosher fish,” says Omri Lernau, a researcher from the University of Haifa and an expert on the study of ancient fish bones.

The discovery helps answer questions about when the ancient Israelites began observing the biblical ban on eating scaleless and finless fish. More broadly, it gives us clues about when Judaism as we know it, with its dietary laws and other signposts of the faith, became a mass religion, says Yonatan Adler, an archaeologist from Ariel University, in the West Bank, who co-authored the study.

“When scholars look at early Judaism they are often looking at texts that were written by the intellectual strata of ancient Judean society and don’t necessarily reflect what people actually knew about, were interested in or were observing,” Adler says. “I’m interested in finding out when people first learned about the Torah and began to observe its laws in their daily lives.”

Canaanites didn’t eat pork

The African catfish: A favored but non-kosher dish in biblical-era Israel Credit: Heiti Paves / Shutterstock

The biblical commandment on eating only seafood that has fins and scales is one of the most important dietary laws in Judaism and, for example, is the reason why observant Jews don’t consume shellfish. The rule is repeated twice in the Torah (Leviticus 11: 9-12 and Deuteronomy 14: 9-10) and immediately follows the even more famous taboo on eating pig.

But despite their textual proximity, these two prohibitions appear to have a very different history.

Archaeologists have long noted that pig bones are almost completely absent from archaeological layers across the Levant, starting already in the Late Bronze Age, a time before the emergence of the Israelites and the writing of the Bible. With the exception of the southern coast of the Levant, which was then home to the pork-loving Philistines, pig bones are absent not just at sites associated with the Israelites but also with the Canaanites, the Arameans and other peoples across the region.

This suggests that the dearth of pork remains in the archeological record doesn’t necessarily signal observance of a biblical precept, since this dietary custom predates the writing of the Torah itself and cannot be linked only to the ancient Hebrews, Lernau notes. It is more likely that the swineless Levantine diet arose for economic or ecological reasons, and only became a Jewish religious taboo at a later time, Adler adds.

Conversely, going far back to the Bronze Age, the people of the Levant did eat scaleless and finless fish liberally, so a change in eating habits should be visible in archaeological layers and can be used to investigate when the kosher dietary laws first began to be observed, the two researchers aver.

If you are wondering why they looked at fish rather than, say, shellfish remains, that’s because some mollusks were used for ornamental purposes or to extract dyes for textiles, and are thus not a good indicator for dietary habits.

“If you find fish bones in Jerusalem or another site that is far away from a large body of water then you can be pretty sure it was eaten, because a fish carcass can hardly be used for anything else,” Adler says.

Catfish in the Hula ValleyCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

Catfish in the City of David

For the era from 950 B.C.E. to 586 B.C.E., which roughly coincides with the First Temple period, an average of 13 percent of fish bones unearthed in Jerusalem and other sites in the biblical Kingdom of Judah came from non-kosher species, the study reports.

These were mainly catfish, with a few sharks and rays mixed in. The latter two would have had to be brought from the Mediterranean. As for the catfish, most of these were native to the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, and Mediterranean coastal rivers and swamps, but some belonged to species that lived only in the Nile, and would have had to be imported from Egypt.

This is not entirely surprising, as it is known that the ancient Egyptians established a bustling export business of processed fish – probably dried, salted or smoked – across the entire Eastern Mediterranean, Lernau explains.

The destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E. did not put an end to the eating of non-kosher fish. As Judeans repopulated their capital after the exile and built the Second Temple in the Persian period (539-332 B.C.E), catfish bones continue to feature amongst the leftovers of their meals.

For example, under a tower in the so-called City of David – the original urban nucleus of Jerusalem – archaeologists found 195 fish bones dated to this period, with 36 belonging to non-kosher catfish. For the subsequent Hellenistic era, which begins with Alexander the Great’s conquest of Jerusalem in 332 B.C.E., there are still a few remains of non-kosher fish found across Israel, but the total amount of fish bones dating to this period is too small to determine whether the biblical dietary law was followed or not during this time, Adler and Lernau acknowledge.

"City of David" excavationCredit: Ariel David
Anterior vertebra of a catfish excavated in JerusalemCredit: Omri Lernau

Only from the early Roman era are non-kosher fish bones mostly absent from Judean settlements, indicating that kosher laws were more widely observed by then.

Ezra brings the Torah (or not)

The consumption of non-kosher fish during the Persian period is particularly significant in light of what we think we know about the birth of Judaism and the writing of the Bible.

Scholars are divided on when the holy text was first put in writing, but it is generally considered to be the result of a long process of compilation and editing that lasted centuries and involved multiple hands and sources. While parts of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, may have already been written at the end of the First Temple period, most scholars today agree that it only assumed its final form after the Babylonian exile, in Persian times, and that Judaism as we know it began in this era.

This is in part suggested by the Bible itself, which tells us that the local Judeans were ignorant of the Torah, and its laws, until the scribe Ezra brought it with him from Babylonia during the Persian period and read it to the people in Jerusalem (Nehemiah 8).

Catfish are delish: Stork eating oneCredit: Bernard DUPONT

Fish bones dug up from archaeological sites obviously don’t tell us anything about when the Torah was written or if it was read out in Jerusalem, but they do suggest that, at least in the Persian period, there may not have been any particular awareness or observance by the Judeans of the dietary laws on aquatic fauna.

“I’m not suggesting that biblical texts didn’t exist by this time – I don’t know when they were written, and they might even have been written quite early – but there is a big difference between a text being written and sitting on a shelf and a text that is known and accepted by the masses as binding law,” Adler tells Haaretz.

The archaeologist leads a broader project , of which the fish bones study was just one part, that looks for the archaeological evidence for the beginnings of Judaism as a religion identified with the observance of biblical laws.

When it comes to archeological evidence for this, mikvehs (ritual baths) and stone vessels, which are associated with biblical purity rules, don’t appear in the archaeological record until the time of the Hasmonaeans, in the second century B.C.E. Similarly, figurative images abound in Judean statuettes and other ancient media during the First Temple period and then onward on coins from Persian times – in apparent contradiction to the ban on making graven images imposed by the second of the Ten Commandments. Only at the end of the second century B.C.E., after the revolt led by the Hasmoneans against the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire, are graven images truly eschewed, the archaeological evidence shows.

“The surprising conclusion is that there is no evidence that the masses knew about the bulk of these rules before the second century B.C.E,” he says. “For the Persian period, which is when most scholars believe Judaism begins, we have clear evidence that non-kosher fish was being eaten, figurative art was regularly used on coins, and so on. I think we need to seriously reconsider the idea that Judaism as a way of life begins as early as the Persian period.”

Fish stories

Centrum of shark excavated in AshkelonCredit: Omri Lernau

But do these simple fish bones really imply that we must move the clock forward on the birth of Judaism by some 300 years?

Not necessarily, says Elon Gilad, a Haaretz columnist and expert on Jewish history and language. Firstly, as mentioned above, the fish bone study has a gaping data hole when it comes to the Hellenistic period, caused by the fact that few archaeological digs have unearthed layers from this time in Israel, and therefore we can’t say much about observance of kosher rules by the ancient Judeans between the Persian and Roman eras, he notes.

Secondly, as the saying goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The population of Jerusalem and Judea during the Persian and Hellenistic periods was very small, so it might be expected to find few signs in the archaeological record of their religious and cultural norms, Gilad says. The fact that significant amounts of data from fish bones, ritual baths and other findings only appear in the Hasmonean period may simply be a reflection of the expanding population and borders of Judea at that time, rather than a signal of the actual start of widespread Torah observance, he says.

Adler, one of the authors of the fish study, agrees that more information is needed, particularly when it comes to the Hellenistic period, and hopes that future digs will provide more bones for the analysis.

“What we are looking for is when do people know about the Torah and are observing its laws, and the earliest evidence we have now is for the second century B.C.E.,” he maintains. “So Judaism began then or earlier, but how much earlier we don’t know yet.”

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