Often when Christians think of Phoenicia we think of Canaanites and a small spot in Northern Canaan on a Bible map which corresponds roughly to the later Roman district. But is this all that ancient Phoenicia was? And was Phoenicia really the domain solely of Canaanites? Or is there more to the history of Phoenicia as it relates to our Bibles that Christians ought to know? In this presentation we will look at the classical scope of the territory of Phoenicia and the evidence for Israelite dominance in the region.
To the ancient Greeks Phoenicia stretched across almost the entire Eastern Mediterranean coastline from Orthosia in Cilicia to Pelusium in the Eastern Nile Delta (Strabo, Geography 16.2.21, 33). This includes all of the coastal territory possessed by the Israelites. Strabo even wrote of Moses and the Israelite conquest of Canaan saying that the successors of Moses “seized the property of others and subdued much of Syria and Phoenicia” (ibid. 16.2.37).
It is evident in the book of Joshua that there was Israelite activity in the regions of Tyre, Sidon and points further to the North (11.8, 13.4, 6 and 19.28-29). In Joshua 19 Asher’s borders are said to extend “even unto great Sidon” (v. 28), and “to the strong city Tyre” (v. 29). In the Septuagint the inheritance of Naphtali includes “the walled cities of the Tyrians” (v. 35). In Genesis 49.13 Jacob blesses his son saying “Zebulon shall dwell on the coast, and he shall be by a haven of ships, and shall extend to Sidon”. The tribe of Dan was also bound to the sea (Judges 5.17, Ezekiel 27.19).
Flavius Josephus tells us that the Tyrian king Hiram was an Israelite by race whose mother was of the tribe of Naphtali and whose father was an Israelite named Ur (Antiquities 8.3.4). Josephus also informs us that the kings of Tyre later exerted their rule over Sidon and even Cyprus (ibid. 8.13.1, 9.14.2). Strabo tells us that all the Western colonies of the Phoenicians in Iberia, Libya and beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar) hailed from Tyre (Geography 16.2.22).
In 2 Sam 24.6-7 we see that the census of Israel included Sidon and Tyre which are mentioned separately from the Canaanite cities. In Amos 3.11 in the Septuagint we read concerning that Assyrian conquest of Israel: “O Tyre, thy land shall be made desolate round about thee”. In another reference to the destruction of Israel Micah 7.12 says “thy cities shall be levelled, and parted among the Assyrians; and thy strong cities shall be parted from Tyre to the river”. Clearly Tyre was one of the Israelite cities ravaged by the Assyrians.
Josephus, citing Theophrastus, relates that the Tyrians were forbidden to swear foreign oaths, and Josephus mentions one of their oaths in particular (“the Corban”) which he says is known otherwise only to the Judeans (Against Apion 1.22). Herodotus tells us that “the Phoenicians and the Syrians of Palestine” (the latter being what Herodotus called the Judeans, e.g. Histories 2.159, 3.5 and 7.89) were both circumcised (ibid. 2.104). It ought to be noted here that the ancient Israelite practice of circumcision differed greatly from the later Jewish custom widely practiced in the Jewish, Islamic and American worlds today. I will not get into any grisly details here, but suffice it to say that Jewish circumcision is a horrific mockery of the Biblical rite of circumcision.
The Greek hero Cadmus is called “the Phoenician” throughout Classical Greek literature and was regarded as the founder of Grecian Thebes (Lord Charles Neaves, ‘The Greek Anthology’, John B. Alden, pp. 160-162). Herodotus calls Cadmus “the Tyrian” (Histories 2.49) and elsewhere he refers to the “Phoenicians who came with Cadmus” to Greece and taught the Japhetic Ionian Greeks their alphabet (ibid. 5.58). Diodorus Siculus likewise attributes the origin of the Greek alphabet to the Phoenicians who came to Greece with Cadmus (Library of History 3.67.1). That the Greek alphabet derives from the Phoenician is now known to be a matter of fact, hardly a surprise considering that the names of the letters have, for the most part, scarcely changed from their original Northwest Semitic names, e.g. alpha=aleph, beta=beth, gamma=gimel etc.
The name Cadmus probably comes from the Semitic triliteral root *qadm- meaning “East”, with the addition of the Greek masculine name ending -os giving the meaning “man of the East”. Cadmus is said to have been the grandfather of Dionysus (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 4.2.1-3), and to have come from the city of Thebes in Egypt (ibid. 1.23.4). That Cadmus was an Israelite is evident elsewhere in Greek literature, but that is beyond the scope of this discussion, and I have already written at some length of Cadmus and his compatriots.
The recent research of some linguists has proposed controversial but fascinating theories about a Phoenician presence in Western and Northern Europe (Theo Vennemann, Robert Mailhammer, ‘The Carthaginian North: Semitic Influence on Early Germanic’, John Benjamins Publishing Company, Theo Vennemann, ‘Germania Semitica’ and ‘Europa Vasconica, Europa Semitica’, Mouton De Gruyter) and posit that Germanic languages contain a Semitic superstratum associated with the Phoenicians and the Celtic languages a substratum, while the Germanic runes come directly from the Phoenician writing system.
The Phoenicians had an incredibly far reaching influence by sea. The Periplus of Hanno the Navigator documents his voyage down the Western coast of Africa. Pliny the Elder says he actually circumnavigated Africa and landed in Arabia (Natural History 2.169), and that at this time another Punic explorer named Himilco explored the remote coasts of Europe (ibid.). A later Roman author preserves portions of the account which shows that Himilco sailed the North Atlantic coasts of Western Europe (Rufius Festus Avienus, J. P. Murphy, ‘Ora Maritima: or, Description of the Seacoast from Brittany Round to Massilia’, Ares Publishers).
Punic graffiti has been discovered in Wales, confirming their activity in that region (Alfred Guillaume, ‘Iraq’, British Institute for the Study of Iraq, vol. 7, pp. 67-68, ‘The Phoenician Graffito in the Holt Collection of the National Museum of Wales’). The Phoenicians are known to have mined tin in Cornwall which ended up in ancient Israel, and the Phoenicians may also be responsible for exporting Cypriot copper and Egyptian glass as far North as Scandinavia. Perhaps these Phoenicians had a more profound influence on Western Civilization than they are often credited with.