The Bible as History

9781108077927fc3dIn my nerdy childhood, one of my favourite books was The Bible as History in Pictures, which offered black-and-white illustrations (often badly reproduced, and probably from nineteenth-century originals) of ancient sites and artefacts which could be related to the biblical narrative. I think it was translated from German, and I remember very little about the text, but many of the pictures have stuck in my mind, from the ruins of Nineveh and the Ishtar Gate to one of the superb portrait heads of a (presumed) child of Akhenaten from Tell el-Amarna.

Animals from the Ishtar Gate, now in the Berlin Museum

Animals from the Ishtar Gate, now in the Berlin Museum

A princess from Amarna

A princess from Amarna










The book would, I think have been very much to the liking of Archibald Henry Sayce, Assyriologist and biblical scholar, some of who books we have already reissued, with more in the pipeline. (There’s a complete list below.) Sayce was a determined opponent of the ‘higher criticism’ as it became known: a critical inquiry into the nature, origin, and date of the books of the Bible, which sought to demonstrate that the stories of the Old Testament should not be interpreted literally. In Sayce’s opinion, ‘in the narrative of the Pentateuch we have history and not fiction’, and he believed that archaeological discoveries supported his view.

A.H. Sayce, from the frontispiece of his 'Reminiscences'

A.H. Sayce, from the frontispiece of his ‘Reminiscences’

His two best known books on the topic were The ‘Higher Criticism’ and the Verdict of the Monuments (1894) and Patriarchal Palestine (1895), and to some they seemed outdated at the time: indeed the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, not exactly the most radical of organisations, which published the former book, dissociated itself from the content: ‘The Tract Committee of the S.P.C.K. wish it to be understood that in publishing this work, which throws so valuable a light on much of the Old testament, they do not commit the Society to an agreement with all the opinions expressed in it.’

Sayce, born in 1845, was a sickly child – pulmonary tuberculosis followed by typhoid fever in addition to all the usual hazards of infancy before antibiotics. However, by the age of 10, he had mastered Latin and classical Greek, and was learning Homeric Greek; in his teens he taught himself Egyptian hieroglyphs, and then moved on to cuneiform. At Oxford, he studied the Vedas with Max Müller; the scholar of the Celtic languages, John Rhys, also became a lifelong friend. His student career was interrupted by illness: in 1866 his eyesight began to fail (and was not fully restored until 1874), his lung complaint returned, and he contracted pneumonia. Sent to Pau and Biarritz to recuperate, he learned Basque (one of the twenty-odd ancient and modern languages he mastered), and his health did not prevent him getting a double first in Mods and Greats (though it did cause him to withdraw from a second degree course in law and modern history).

At The Queen’s College, Oxford, he was elected fellow and classical lecturer in 1869, and college tutor in 1870, the year he was ordained. But a cloistered academic life was certainly not the only part of his game plan. He wrote for the London Times and the New York Independent, lectured widely on cuneiform tablets and other archaeological topics, worked on the Old Testament Religion Committee at Oxford, and ‘took up’ comparative philology, of which he later became professor at Oxford.

Travel in Europe and the eastern Mediterranean occupied his summers, and in 1879 he resigned his tutorship in order to free up his time for archaeology and his studies of cuneiform, on which his books effectively opened up the field to British students. In Egypt, his headquarters was a Nile-boat fitted with an extensive library; he also spent time excavation at the ancient Ethiopian capital at Meroe, now in the Sudan. He knew Heinrich Schliemann, and posited the idea of a widespread ‘Mycenaean’ civilization in Greece well before the archaeological evidence emerged to confirm it.








All this information is drawn from his 1923 Reminiscences. Beginning with Sayce’s own family background, this lively, engaging and humorous narrative encompasses the whole world of late nineteenth-century intellectual circles: George Eliot, Sir Henry Layard, Herbert Spencer, Robert Browning and many others appear in this account, which is full of surprising details, such as Walter Pater’s aversion to bicycles, and Isabella Bird’s imperviousness to cold.

When Sayce died in 1933, many of his ideas had been overtaken by further discoveries (a possibility he had always acknowledged), and his claims for the historical validity of the Old Testament were especially ridiculed, but one cannot fail to be impressed by the learning and energy displayed in such a huge body of work over such a long life, well lived.


A list of Sayce’s books: those without links will be published in the next month or so.

A Primer of Assyriology (1894)

An Assyrian Grammar (1872)

An Elementary Grammar with Full Syllabary and Progresssive Reading Book, of the Assyrian Language, in the Cuneiform Type (1875)

Ancient Empires of the East: Herodotos I–III (1883)

Babylonians and Assyrians (1900)

Introduction to the Science of Language (2 Volume Set) (1880)

Lectures upon the Assyrian Language and Syllabary (1877)

Patriarchal Palestine (1895)

Reminiscences (1923)

The ‘Higher Criticism’ and the Verdict of the Monuments (1894)

The Archaeology of the Cuneiform Inscriptions (1907)

The Early History of the Hebrews (1897)

The Egypt of the Hebrews and Herodotos (1895)

The Principles of Comparative Philology (1874)

The Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia (1902)

Sayce also edited three books by George Smith:

The Chaldean Account of Genesis (1876)

The History of Babylonia (1877)

History of Sennacherib (1878)






This entry was posted in Archaeology, Biography, Classics, Egyptology, History, Language and Linguistics, Religious Studies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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