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Velikovsky, Fundamentalism, and the Revised Chronology
by Clark Whelton

In the summer of 1977 I spent a day at Immanuel Velikovsky's home in Princeton.  We sat in the living room and talked about history.  Peoples of the Sea had just appeared in print. Velikovsky was brimming with optimism.  By following volume I of his "Ages in Chaos" series with volume V, and leaving the middle three installments till last, he intended to establish and secure the perimeter of his revised chronology.  There were both advantages and risks to this method.  Jumping to the end of the series allowed Velikovsky to champion a radically lowered date (4th century BCE) for Ramses III without having to demonstrate a logical sequence of events beginning where volume I left off (the end of the 18th dynasty, ca. 840 BCE).  The principal risk was that critics would be loath to accept such a startling displacement of Ramses III unless the necessary sequence was provided. 

Also, it seemed to me that Velikovsky was risking the same kind of trouble that plagues the chronology of ancient Greece. The history of Greece is written in opposite directions.  We follow the trail of evidence from classical times backward until it fades out in the 7th and 8th centuries BCE.  At the same time we track the development of the Mycenaean period (conventionally anchored in the 2nd millennium BCE by archaeological ties to the 18th dynasty) forward until it fades out in 12th and 11th centuries BCE.  Because these converging histories fail to converge, the resulting gap is called a "dark age."  It occurred to me that Velikovsky, by sandwiching his revision between the unbending bookends of volumes I and V, might be inviting similar problems.  As it turned out, a "dark age" does exist in the center of the Ages in Chaos series.  Volume III, The Assyrian Conquest, still hasn't seen the light of day. 

In the summer of 1977, however, I shared Velikovsky's optimism.  Nevertheless, I couldn't help wondering why, instead of jumping forward, he didn't simply continue down the trail that began so promisingly in volume I.  Using Biblical chronology as a guide to the reconstruction of ancient history had apparently served him well.  Hadn't the true identities of Shishak and the Queen of Sheba emerged from the mists of history?  I'd come to accept Velikovsky's method completely, and believed what he said in Ages in Chaos.  On page 99, after carefully showing that the histories of Israel and Egypt were out of sync by some 600 years, he wrote:

"Whose history is to be moved by these centuries?  Is      it possible to place (King) David in the sixteenth century      before this era?  No student of ancient history will see the      slightest possibility of altering the history of the kings      of Jerusalem by a single century, much less by six, without      disrupting all established data and concepts.  The Biblical      annals record the succession of the kings of Judah and of      Israel, king after king, and give the years of their reigns.      If there are, here and there, some discrepancies or      difficulties in the double account of the kings of Judah and      Israel, they are of an entirely different dimension, and may      amount at most to one or two decades, but not hundreds of years."

In spite of this persuasive statement and the apparent success of volume I, it still wasn't clear why Velikovsky had jumped ahead 500 years in Peoples of the Sea.  Had the Biblical guide gone astray?  As we discussed this question, I mentioned something that had been said to me by an historian from New Jersey.      "You've got to be careful with Ages in Chaos," he cautioned. "It's obvious that Velikovsky is personally involved with the history of Israel.  He's very much aware of the implications of his work for modern Israel.  I think he has a special interest in having things come out a certain way."

Velikovsky's eyes blazed with anger.  "In other words," he snapped, "this man is calling me a liar."  I tried to explain that I didn't think such an accusation was being made, but Velikovsky got up, walked across the room, and picked up a Bible. Barely in control of his emotions, he said:  "I will read you something."  He turned to Jeremiah 52, the story of Israel's rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar.  As King Zedekiah tried to escape from besieged Jerusalem, he was captured near Jericho and taken before Nebuchadnezzar at Riblah.  "The leaders of Judah were killed on the spot," Velikovsky said.  "But Zedekiah, the last Hebrew king to sit on the throne of David, was not so lucky. His sons were slaughtered in front of him, and then his eyes were put out.  They took him alive to Babylon, so that for the rest of his days his last sight would be his children dying in agony." Velikovsky's eyes filled with tears.  Overcome by empathy, he had to leave the room.  When he returned he pointed to the Bible and said, "This is the history of my people.  About the Scriptures I do not tell lies!"

Later we went to a diner on Route 1.  While we ate lunch Velikovsky discussed the current political situation in Israel. A debate was raging over whether or not to return the Sinai to Egypt.  I asked his opinion.  "They should return part, but not all," he said.    "Why do you say that?"  "You have read Ages in Chaos.  You know that the historical borders of the Israel of David and Solomon were the Euphrates in the north and El Arish in the south.  We are in El Arish now.  To give up historical borders would be a mistake."

The words of the historian from New Jersey came back to me at that moment.  Clearly, Velikovsky was personally involved in both the ancient and modern history of Israel.  But if he had a hidden agenda I couldn't see it.  His revised chronology was based on solid research and established principles of scholarship.  His heavy reliance on Biblical history made sense because the Bible was just as he described it, a generation by generation account of ancient times, the only such text in existence.  Abandoning the Bible as a guidepost would indeed "disrupt all established data and concepts."  At the time it didn't occur to me that Velikovsky was methodically disrupting all established data and concepts in Egyptology, the keystone and fulcrum of ancient history.  Under Velikovsky's revision, the Bible assumed this pivotal role.

Several weeks later I interviewed Cyrus Gordon, the great philologist and professor of Hebrew studies, in his office at New York University.  I asked Dr. Gordon about Velikovsky's suggestion (A.in C., p. 69) that the unusual Hebrew phrase "evil angels" (Psalms 78:49) should be translated "king shepherds," and used as evidence that the Biblical Amalekites were the Hyksos. Gordon called Velikovsky's idea "a brilliant emendation," but expressed strong doubts about the overall accuracy of his revised chronology.  First, he questioned Velikovsky's identification of the "Prst," who fought against Ramses III, as the Persians. Gordon supported the accepted view that the "Prst" were Philistines.

"The distinctive 'Prst' helmet is pictured on the Phaistos disk from Crete," he said.  The disk is conventionally dated to the 2nd millennium BCE.  "But there are larger issues.  You have to understand that Velikovsky has a particular vision of the Hebrew role in history.  Do you know where Velikovsky says the Amalekites-Hyksos came from?" "From Arabia."      "Yes.  Barbarians from Arabia conquer and oppress Egypt, the center of ancient civilization.  They rule Egypt with great cruelty until their capital city is conquered and sacked by...?"

"By King Saul."

"Yes.  Under Velikovsky's revision, Israelites are not only exonerated of the charge that they themselves were the Hyksos, but Israel also throws out the Arab barbarians.  Israel becomes the liberator of Egypt and the savior of civilization."  He paused.  "Do you see what I'm getting at?"

"Yes, I think so." 

 I did think so.  I thought Gordon was saying exactly what he said.  But the implications of his words had escaped me completely. It wasn't until February 1988, when I met Dr. Gordon at Roger Wescott's home and we talked about the points we'd discussed 11 years before, that I suddenly understood what he meant.  Under Velikovsky's revision, ancient Israel like modern Israel battles against Arabs in defense of its borders and the values it upholds. The significance of the earlier struggle illuminates the present one.

This conversation with Cyrus Gordon came at a crucial moment in my ongoing effort to evaluate Velikovsky's revised chronology in light of later research.  Although I'd come to have strong doubts about the Velikovsky's Peoples of the Sea and Ramses II and His Time, the intriguing identifications and parallels in Ages in Chaos had continued to hold my attention.  But I also found myself convinced by the relentless logic of Gunnar Heinsohn's sweeping and radical reconstruction of Mesopotamian history. 

Heinsohn points out that until 1868, five major empires were known to have preceded the Hellenistic Greeks:  Chaldeans, Assyrians, Late Chaldeans, Medes, and Persians.  Toward the end of the 19th century, excavators recognized that archaeological evidence from Mesopotamia was not sufficient to justify a history extending back to the third millennium BCE, when according to Biblical chronology high civilizations existed in both Mesopotamia and Egypt.  Scholars realized that either Biblical dating had to be shortened by many centuries or additional evidence had to be found to support the Biblical time frame. According to Heinsohn, Biblical chronology eventually won the day because scholars interpreted the archaeological evidence in a way that made it conform with Bible stories, stories they presumed to be true.  They did it by doubling the five known empires to 10: Early Sumerians, Old Akkadians, Neo-Sumerians, Old Babylonians, Kassites, Mitanni, Assyrians, Late Chaldeans, Medes, and Persians.

However, curious things occurred when this new chronology was applied to the physical evidence.  Archaeological remains for such well-known people as the Chaldeans dwindled to virtually nothing, while the Early Sumerians "unknown to even the most brilliant scholars of antiquity," to quote Heinsohn were suddenly discovered to have built a flourishing empire. Similarly, physical evidence for the previously-unknown 2nd millennium BCE "Mitanni" assumed a prominent place in the textbooks while the 1st millennium Medes who are mentioned repeatedly by other ancient nations and authors and who were co- conquerors of the Assyrian Empire became archaeological shadows.  The newly-found "Old Babylonians" of the 2nd millennium ascended to fame and glory while evidence for the mighty Persian Empire of the 1st millennium couldn't be found at all.

It seemed obvious to me that if Heinsohn was right Biblical history was in peril.  For a while I was hopeful that both sides could be accommodated by a synthesis of the competing chronologies.  But when Heinsohn withdrew his support for Velikovsky's 9th century placement of the Amarna period, and moved this key epoch of Egyptian history down to the end of the 7th century BCE, it was obvious that hope of a compromise was gone.  There was no way to shift Saul, David, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba to the 7th century and keep the accepted chronology of the Bible intact.  Either Heinsohn or Velikovsky was wrong.  

On the emotional level, I supported Velikovsky.  I found (and still find) his revised chronology to be both satisfying and reassuring.  On the levels of scholarship and reason, however, Heinsohn carried the day, even though I found myself resenting his work.  Nevertheless, I recognized that while he might well be wrong on specific points, his brilliant breakthrough in Mesopotamia had compelled a radical shortening of the histories of Egypt and Israel, whether I liked it or not.  Synchronisms established by the Amarna letters convinced me that the end of the Late Bronze Age had to come down to the last years of the 7th century BCE.  And yet I couldn't put my doubts aside, until testimony from another source finally tipped the balance in Heinsohn's favor.

Yehoshua Etzion is a violinist with the Jerusalem Symphony and an amateur historian with a solid understanding of archaeology.  From what I know of his forthcoming book The Lost Bible, I can tell you that Etzion will be making a major contribution to our understanding of stratigraphy in the land of Israel.  Of particular importance will be Etzion's revelations about the Iron Age, and where to look for Persian strata, which are missing not only in Mesopotamia but in major sites in Israel, as well.  In early 1988, during an exchange of letters with Etzion, I asked him what he thought of Heinsohn's revised chronology.  He expressed serious doubts about Heinsohn's revision as it applied to Israel.  Etzion had found Biblical chronology to be a reasonably accurate guide for archaeological research.  In one area, however, he showed support for Heinsohn's work.  Based on evidence from Israeli stratigraphy, Etzion described Heinsohn's late placement of the Amarna period as "very promising."

"In fact," he told me during a visit to New York, "I might even place it later than Heinsohn." 

I asked how he could back Heinsohn in this important area and support Biblical chronology at the same time.  "My book is based on archaeology, not Bible studies," he replied.  "You must always keep in mind that there is a great difference between archaeology and Bible studies.  Also, when it comes to understanding the history of the Bible you must always beware of hidden fundamentalism."

Hidden fundamentalism.  It was a term that Etzion used several times in our correspondence and again during our meetings in New York.  The words struck home.  I'd been trying to get at the source of my lingering resentment toward Heinsohn's work, and gradually it became clear.  I was angry with him because he was undermining Biblical history.

Now, I am not what is usually called a "religious" person. I'm not an atheist, but I don't attend religious services except on special occasions, and only then to make someone else happy. I would resent it mightily if anyone called me a "fundamentalist."  But the more I thought it, the more I had to admit that my interest in Velikovsky's revised chronology was tinged with a streak of "hidden fundamentalism."  Velikovsky offered me a way to get my religion in secular doses without having to swallow it whole. 

Velikovsky was keenly aware that his work is closely connected with religious sentiment.  Opponents of Worlds in Collision accused Velikovsky of pandering to fundamentalist faith by attempting to prove that the miraculous events of the Scriptures had a basis in historical fact.  Velikovsky was amused by accusations of fundamentalism because he'd been hailed by a society of British atheists for proving that the so-called miraculous events of the Scriptures were nothing more than natural disasters on a global scale.

I had long since come to the conclusion that Velikovsky was not a religious fundamentalist because he demonstrated a repeated willingness to question the literal truth of Bible stories.  For example, on page 32 of Ages in Chaos Velikovsky casts doubt on the statements in Exodus that "all of the firstborn and only the firstborn" were killed on the first night of the Exodus plagues "because events can never attain that degree of coincidence.  No credit should be given to such a record."  In Worlds in Collision Velikovsky also cautions his readers to seek the correct interpretation of Scriptural passages and not to take them literally.

So if my intense interest in the revised chronology can in fact be traced to feelings of hidden fundamentalism, it would appear that none of this has anything to with Velikovsky.  But in fact I think it does.  It wouldn't be fair to call Velikovsky a religious fundamentalist, or a theological fundamentalist.  But I believe the evidence shows that Velikovsky is a chronological fundamentalist.  He accepts the later chronology of Biblical history as literal truth.  On page 76 of Ages in Chaos Velikovsky weighs the evidence for determining the length of the Hyksos period and concludes that Biblical chronology is correct.  This is the pattern for his entire post-Exodus revision.

In retrospect, Velikovsky's chronological fundamentalism should not surprise anyone who rereads the paragraph from Ages in Chaos I quoted earlier.

     "Whose history (Israel or Egypt) is to be moved by      (six) centuries?...  No student of ancient history will see      the slightest possibility of altering the history of the      kings of Jerusalem by a single century, much less by six..."

That last sentence is not a statement.  It's an order.  It's an order which many of Velikovsky's admirers still follow devotedly.  But there's no real reason why they should.   Who says that "No student of ancient history will see the slightest possibility of altering the chronology of the kings of Jerusalem"?  Many scholars have proposed such alterations.  Books have been written on the subject.  Archaeologists have long noted a distressing lack of evidence that confirms Biblical chronology. Proof that David and Solomon were real people is missing altogether. 

Velikovsky should have begun by questioning Biblical chronology, by stating that Biblical dating may or may not be accurate, or may be partially accurate.  Bible stories are not archaeology.  They are stories, which may or may not contain elements of historical fact.  Velikovsky should have constantly questioned the various dating schemes while applying his method of drawing literary parallels between the histories of Egypt and Israel.

But Velikovsky didn't take this cautious approach.  He saw no reason to, because altering Biblical chronology by more than "one or two decades" would "disrupt all established data and concepts."  A man who made a career out of disrupting the established history of the ancient world should have been more careful.  He should have realized that no one's history is immune to disruption.  He should have let that realization permeate his work.  Instead, he began with a vision of the truth and followed that vision down a road that took him astray.  He never succeeded in piecing together the complex puzzle of ancient chronology. And yet his courage and leadership made possible the breakthroughs that came later.

Did Velikovsky have a hidden agenda?  Was he deliberately manipulating the evidence as he shaped his revised chronology?  I don't think so.  I found Velikovsky to be open and honest.  It's true he was passionately involved in the history of Israel, past and present.  In my opinion, however, Velikovsky  was motivated not by a desire to deceive, but to believe.  If he had a hidden agenda, it was hidden from himself, as well.

The final irony is that Velikovsky, who so eloquently showed us how catastrophist fears became uniformitarian certainties in the age of Newton, was part of the Newtonian age himself.  When the comforts of geocentric theology collapsed, Newton re- established the shaken tenets of religious faith on the terra firma of modern science.  Velikovsky tried to shore up the shaken chronology of the Bible, a chronology that had been challenged by Egyptologists and by a lack of archaeological evidence.  Like Newton, Velikovsky sought validation of the Bible through modern scholarship and secular proofs.

Today, in the light of Gunnar Heinsohn's discoveries, we are coming to see that the accepted chronologies of both Egypt and the Bible are wrong.  As we gain a more accurate understanding of ancient chronology, religious and social customs derived from the Scriptures are being subjected to increasing pressure, just as they were in Newton's time when we gained a more accurate understanding of the solar system.  I doubt that Biblical chronology can stand against the strength of Heinsohn's reconstruction.  But whatever the fate of the Bible as a historical document, the central message of the Scriptures will endure.  It will endure because the human predicament endures. We live on a dangerous planet.  The Bible on its most basic level tells us that there is survival value in believing we're not powerless in the face of disaster.

In Worlds in Collision (p. 189), Velikovsky mentions the Snohomish tribe on Puget Sound.  According to tribal legend, there was a time when the sky was so low people couldn't stand erect.  They attempted to lift the oppressive clouds by shouting "Yahu!" at the heavens.  We can't be sure what kind of calamity the tribe had been struck by.  It could have been anything from a foggy winter to a global upheaval.  Whatever it was, we know the tribe survived because the legend survived.  We may also speculate that if the disaster was severe enough, some tribes ceased to exist as social units. 

Why do some groups survive a catastrophe while others perish?  Luck plays a role, of course.   There's nothing like being at the right place at the right time.  But those who survive physically must also survive psychologically.  Under conditions of chaos, hopelessness and despair are the greatest threats to psychological survival.  The Snohomish tribe fought against despair by shouting at the sky.  Other tribes and nations tried (and still try) their own kinds of communication with the heavens.  Sometimes prayer or chanting was used, sometimes human sacrifice.  Rules and rituals were established.  The Bible is a complete source book on our efforts to control the sky by controlling ourselves.    In his Mesopotamian reconstruction, Heinsohn demonstrates that textbook chronology has been decisively influenced by Biblical dates for Abraham.  In effect, therefore, a defense of the accepted chronology is a defense of the Bible in all its historical and psychological complexity.   Those of us whose interest in ancient history was inspired by Velikovsky may not be aware of the extent to which a seemingly secular subject has been affected by hidden fundamentalism.  Heinsohn has written that Velikovsky would have discovered the true chronology of the ancient world "if only he had understood that the Greek 'dark age' did not last 500 years but 700 years, with the Thucydides- derived date of -776 a mere desk fabrication.  Then (Velikovsky) would have brought Akhnaton down to something like -600.  His direction was right..." 

Velikovsky's direction was right, but he was unable to continue in that direction for the required length of time because it would have forced him to abandon Biblical chronology. The Bible is the greatest catastrophist document of all time, a handbook for survival, an antidote to despair.  That should be enough for anyone.  It's a mistake to ask more of the Bible than the Bible can give. 

Heinsohn, to a greater extent than his critics, has been able to free himself from preconceptions about the Bible and look at the archaeological evidence as it actually exists.  Velikovsky never gained that perspective because he believed in advance that the Bible was right.  And so on one level or another do most of Heinsohn's critics.  Hidden fundamentalism is our greatest single obstacle to an accurate understanding of the ancient world.

      # # #

  Copyright 1995 Clark Whelton      _

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