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After men have crossed this desert on the way to Jerusalem, they come to a city which is called Bersabee [Beersheba] which was once a fine city in habited by Christian men, and still there are some of their churches standing. In that city Abraham the Patriarch lived. Bersabee the wife of Ury [Uriah] founded that city, and called it Bersabee after herself. In that city King David begat on her Solomon the Wise, who was king of Jerusalem for 40 years.

(The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Chapter Nine, translated by C. W. R. D. Mosely)

Sir John Mandeville here claims that the city of Beersheba was founded by Bathsheba yet a mere sentence earlier he states that Abraham lived there, and Abraham predates Bathsheba by several centuries. In fact, the Bible (Genesis 21:31) explicitly states that Abraham gave it the name Beersheba.

What are we to make of Sir John Mandeville's account? Is this simply a mistake (or deliberate distortion)? Is there, perhaps, an alternative chronology that places Bathsheba before Abraham? Is the naming of this city after Bathsheba attested to anywhere else?

(I am aware that the work as a whole is not considered entirely accurate, but I seek an explanation for this particular claim.)

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    Who can explain why a person who lied about everything, or near enough, lied about a specific claim?..
    – gktscrk
    Dec 6 '20 at 6:57
  • FTM, why consider religious writings to be an accurate historical source? (I'm tempted to say gospel, but that would be a really bad pun :-)) We know that much of Genesis is false, why assume it is accurate re Abraham naming a city "Beersheba"?
    – jamesqf
    Dec 6 '20 at 18:02
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    @jamesqf It doesn’t matter whether you or I would consider religious writings as an accurate historical source. What matters is whether a (supposedly) devout medieval Christian would consider it accurate. With no exposure to modern critical biblical scholarship, why wouldn’t he consider it accurate? Moreover, hoe did he know that Abraham lived there without accepting the account in Genesis?
    – Alex
    Dec 6 '20 at 18:10
  • @Alex: That depends on just what question you're asking, doesn't it? As a parallel, we might ask what sources Virgil used in writing the Aeneid as a history question, but we (most of us, anyway :-)) would regard those sources as being mythology.
    – jamesqf
    Dec 7 '20 at 4:39
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    @jamesqf And the mythological sources he used would be equally interesting and equally a historical question (literary history, at least) Dec 7 '20 at 16:21
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This can't really be reconciled historically, because Abraham was written as a mythological figure, not a historic one.

The Abraham story cannot be definitively related to any specific time, and it is widely agreed that the patriarchal age, along with The Exodus and the period of the judges, is a late literary construct that does not relate to any period in actual history.

As for Mandeville itself, we don't really have anything to go on other than that author's writings in that one work, so if the logic isn't there, we don't know.

We can say more generally that this was before the full development of the Scientific Method, and Mandeville's author had the sensibilities of a storyteller, not a Historian. So its a fair bet that if they made an assertion not otherwise supported by facts, it was because they thought that reading made for the best story.

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I read in Genesis of the naming of the place of Beersheba, where it mentions not a town but only the wells Abraham had dug. We can suggest a nearby town is present because Abimelech does not appear to be a nomad. (Incidentally we do not and cannot know if the wells there today are the same wells or not.)

But by the time of the judge Sameul it is recorded that there is already a town there and the sons of Sameul are already sitting as judges there and David has not yet sat upon the throne. Thus we may find that Sir John Mandeville is simply wrong. Nevertheless take note we do not know for certain if it's the same place as Abraham had wells dug but rather that the the people of the time of the Kings of Judah believed it was the same place. No matter what date you set for the writing of the books of Judges and Sameul you have to accept the fact there is a continuity of memory good enough to fix place names from the time of the conquest of Canaan through the exile to Babylon and the return thereof. Name-location pairs were only lost when the Romans had quite enough and kicked the Jews out for a very long time.

In answer to the other part of the question, I am aware of no source that puts the name Beersheba before Abraham and I would expect linguistic difficulty in doing so. It's good enough to either say "not named such before Abraham" or "translated into Hebrew instead of transliterated as is their typical practice".

The archeological evidence is the town at the modern-day sight of Beersheba goes back very far, to the point where any reasonable date would be before the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites.

We do not know John Mandeville's sources and this is mystery what legends he drew from, but they can't be true.

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To support the answer by @Joshua, Wikipedia says:

Beersheba is mainly dealt with in the Hebrew Bible in connection with the Patriarchs Abraham and Isaac, who both dig a well and close peace treaties with King Abimelech of Gerar at the site. Hence it receives its name twice, first after Abraham's dealings with Abimelech (Genesis 21:22-34), and again from Isaac who closes his own covenant with Abimelech of Gerar and whose servants also dig a well there (Genesis 26:23-33). The place is thus connected to two of the three Wife–sister narratives in the Book of Genesis.

In particular, the Genesis 21:31 literally says:

Therefore that place was called Beer-sheba;

This should be read more correctly as "Therefore this place is called the well of covenant " (Mistranslating sheva of Beer Sheva as seven rather than as covenant is rather common.)

Further remarks:

  • Whether Abraham is a real or a mythical character is of little importance here, since the Hebrew bible was written well after the events. On linguistic evidence, its earlier chapters (including Genesis) date back to the first millennium B.C.
  • It is difficult to attest whether the place mentioned in the bible is the same as the one called Beer Sheva today. The ancient site of Tel Sheva is located beyond the city line, whereas the site called "Abraham's well" in the old city is certainly a much later creation.

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