The Year Civilization Collapsed

Whereas most scholastic works dealing with history and archaeology deal with specific people, in specific places, and specific times in order to understand the specific things those people do, Eric Cline’s 1177 B.C. deals with over 500 years and numerous peoples and places in an attempt to understand what happened to cause the world’s first real “dark ages,” at the end of the Bronze Age.

Cline obviously knows his material, has done the necessary scholarly research, and writes on a level that non-specialists can understand. This is especially impressive considering the scope and breadth of material he covers in this short work. Cline simply makes the ancient world come alive for those of us who know little to nothing about the worlds of which he speaks.

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Admittedly, I picked up the book because of my interest in biblical studies – I wanted to know more about the world in which the ancient Israelites interacted and from which they grew out. Dealing only minimally with the ancient Israelites, Cline took me on a wonderful and exhilarating journey through the world of the ancient Egyptians, Neo-Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians, and many others, including some mysterious “sea peoples” who possibly played a key role in the destruction of Late Bronze Age civilization(s).

Cline’s effort in this book is not merely historical. He’s looking at these ancient sources and peoples in order to understand something about how civilizations – especially complex civilizations like ours – fall. The interactions of these ancient nations is telling, for Cline, because their interactions, commerce, trade, warfare, diplomacy, etc. reveals the world’s first truly global, international economy. Tracing the rise and fall of these nations helps us understand how certain factors, no matter how small, may actually contribute not only to the demise of individual nations, but the demise of other nations economically, culturally, or diplomatically related to that individual nation. In short, Cline demonstrates that these nations were so intertwined that the ill-effects felt by one, through warfare, natural disaster, or cultural shifts, were felt by all to some degree or another. Because these nations were so intertwined, their fall was a collective fall.

Cline explores various theories regarding this fall, but ultimately concludes ultimately that the fall of these nations, collectively and individually, was likely due to a multitude of complex factors, which, when combined, took down this ancient global economy. He uses this as an opportunity (without getting too preachy) to encourage modern people to consider how climate change, social upheaval, warfare, or economic collapse in one part of a globalized world can impact us here, and the other way around.

As I read this work because of my interest in biblical studies, I think there are a few things worth noting. First, some of the archaeological discoveries Cline discusses are immensely helpful for understanding the culture and religion of the peoples surrounding Israel. Treaty/Covenant making, especially with its familial language, was explored in a way that helps us understand much of the Old Testament’s discussions of God’s covenant(s), specifically as this pertained to the geographic land of Israel.

Cline also discussed one biblical subject I’ve wondered a lot about. He states emphatically, in no uncertain terms (and I’ve heard this confirmed by other reliable sources) that we have absolutely no archaeological evidence that Israel was ever in Egypt as an enslaved people, nor do we have any evidence of their escape or forty years in the wilderness.

I can understand there being certain, key pieces of historical evidence missing, especially considering Israel was merely an enslaved people while in Egypt. But that there are no pieces of evidence – no written documents referencing Israel, no pieces of Pharaoh’s army’s chariots in the Re(e)d sea, no evidence of a wandering nomad group in the desert, etc. is quite fascinating.

Of course, I am one of those Christians who believes it matters that certain things in the biblical record were historical. For example, I think it matters that Jesus Christ was a literal man walking round teaching about the arrival of the Kingdom of God. I think it matters that Jesus historically died on a cross. And I think it matters that Jesus historically resurrected from the dead in a physical body.

I believe these things are non-negotiable.

But it raises the question for other things, like the Exodus. Is a belief in a historical Exodus necessary? It sure seemed like it would have been, in some sense, to ancient Jewish persons in the Bible, itself. Or was it?

I’m of the current perspective that the Exodus did, in fact, happen in real space and time. However, the lack of physical evidence for this raises these important questions for me. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need the physical evidence for my faith to be confirmed, any more than I need the Exodus to have literally happened. I just understand that, valuable as historical evidence is, there is still so much of the ancient world that we know little or nothing about precisely because we have no historical evidence for it.

If I were a historian, I would, admittedly, have to conclude that based on the current evidence, no such thing as the Exodus appears to have happened. But if I were a good historian, I’d also have to conclude, our unpacking and reconstruction of history is always limited and at any time new evidence could arise to reshape our understanding of the Exodus. But until that evidence arrives, certain historical and theological questions are, rightfully, on the table and worthy of our discussion.

What do you think?

Grade: A-