Saturday, February 15, 2020

Who were the Nabataeans?

Alice C. Linsley

The term "Nabataean" refers to the empire and city-building royal house of Idumea. Idumea is a Greek word meaning "Land of Red People" and is another reference to ancient Edom. According to Josephus, Idumea extended in antiquity from Hebron (where Sarah resided) to Beersheba (where Keturah resided). This is the extent of Abraham's territory. The map shows Abraham's territory extending between the settlements of his two wives in Hebron and Beersheba.

Some have speculated that the Magi were Nabataeans. This is not an unreasonable thesis (though the biblical text says the Magi came from the east, not the south.) The rulers of Idumea were heirs to a body of astronomical knowledge and a Messianic expectation that was common to the people of Idumea (ancient Edom) and Judah. Ancient Edom once included what is today a large section of Judah. 

The antiquity and prestige of the Edomite rulers is expressed in Jeremiah's reference to Edom and Teman of Edom as ancient seats of wisdom (Jeremiah 49:7). Genesis 36 explains, "These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the children of Israel."

The Nabataeans are the heirs of that wisdom. They are mentioned in historical records such as Diodorus Siculus' Bibliotheca (book 19), dating to 312 BC, and in an Egyptian papyrus dating to 259 BC. They are mistakenly classified as Arabs. Jan Retso's excellent paper on Nabataean origins indicates that it is misleading to apply the label "Arabs" to the Nabataeans. Retso observes that in 1 Maccabees 5 (v. 25) the Nabataeans were allied with Judas Maccabees while the Arabs are named as his enemies (v. 39).

The Nabataean capital of Petra reflects the pillared architecture of the Horite shrines of the Nile, and the first ruler of Petra, Obodas, took his name from the Edo/Edomite name for ruler which is Oba.

According to the linguist Helene Longpre, Nabataean Aramaic most closely correspond to Meroitic or Old Nubian. (See H. Longpre, "Investigation of the Ancient Meroitic Writing System", Rhode Island College, 1999.) 

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