Until the late 19th century most of the information about
pre-Hellenistic Eastern Mediterranean came from the Hebrew Bible
and from various Greek and Latin sources.
While the Hebrew Bible was largely completed by 300 BC, its attitude toward
contemporary religions of the area was generally quite hostile, so that its
references to these religions may not only devalue them but also exaggerate
or distort various aspects of them. On the other hand, Israelite religion
was itself an outgrowth of, as well as a reaction to, the religions of its
neighbours, so that many features of Israelite religion found in the Hebrew
Bible exemplify the religions of the larger area. The only sure guide to making
such discriminations is the knowledge gained from indigenous documents.
Greek and Latin sources may be less hostile, but they are
also much later, from the Roman period. While they may be more
reliable in their description of the contemporary character of
the religions of the area, that character may have been significantly
different after several centuries of Hellenism from what it had
been even in the middle of the preceding millennium. Notable
among the Greek and Latin sources are De Dea Syra ("About
the Syrian Goddess") from the 2nd century AD, attributed
to Lucian of Samosata, and the section of Eusebius of Caesarea's
Praeparatio evangelica ("Preparation for the Gospel";
4th century AD) that cites extracts from a History of Phoenicia
by Philo of Byblos (c. AD 100); Philo himself claimed
to be translating the work of an early Phoenician priest,
Sanchuniathon. While indigenous sources now confirm isolated
elements of this allegedly early description of Phoenician religion,
its distortions also have become more demonstrable. Philo's history
is in fact an attempt to recount early Phoenician history by
constructing a systematic chronological sequence of events out
of the various local traditions of his time and interpreting
the latter euhemeristically -- that is, by treating gods and
myths as representative of historical individuals and events.
Beginning in the late 18th century, the finds of early explorers of the area
and subsequently of archaeologists engaged in more systematic excavation have
produced a rapidly increasing number of firsthand sources. Successive generations
of epigraphers and philologists have deciphered the texts and attained an
increasingly sophisticated understanding of the languages. Unfortunately,
the texts that are best understood tend to be formulaic and yield only the
most external kinds of information about the religion, while the more distinctive
texts, which seem more interesting and promise to be more revealing, are usually
more difficult to penetrate.
Cuneiform archives from various 2nd-millennium sites and from
the 3rd millennium at Ebla in northwestern Syria provide some
documentation of the religion. The most abundant documentation
comes from the 14th- and 13th-century remains of the city of
Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra), on the Mediterranean coast of Syria.
This includes the only native examples of extended religious
narrative. It also comprises the widest range of genres, including
myths, legends, liturgical texts, god lists, omens, and correspondence.
From the 1st millennium come scores of Phoenician inscriptions,
both from the Phoenician coast and from other areas of the eastern
Mediterranean; neo-Hittite hieroglyphic inscriptions and Aramaic
inscriptions from northern Syria, almost all from the 9th and
8th centuries; and Moabite, Ammonite, and Hebrew inscriptions.
These are very limited in genre, and relatively few are more
than a few lines long.
Uninscribed materials from excavated sites throughout the
eastern Mediterranean supplement the picture: they include the
foundations of temples, temple furnishings, figurines, images
of gods and their emblems, and scenes of gods, myths, and religious
activities on reliefs and seals. However, criteria for identifying
religious materials have not always been carefully considered,
nor has discriminating attention been given to the question of
the reflection of religious life in material remains in general.
It is often difficult to correlate with confidence written and
In spite of these new and ever-growing sources of knowledge,
the resulting picture is still very irregular. While there is
an unparalleled variety of sources, covering a century and a
half, from the large cosmopolitan city of Ugarit, other written
materials give a much more limited picture. For many periods,
areas, and topics there are no written remains. Descriptions
of the religion of any one period or area (with the exception
of Ugarit) are extremely limited and superficial. Generalizations
about the religions of the eastern Mediterranean may well prove
to have significant exceptions as some of these gaps are filled
by new discoveries.