And so, to help answer my questions regarding the truthfulness, or historicity, of the Bible stories, I've just finished watching a fantastic four-part documentary series entitled "The Bible Unearthed" hosted by archaeologist Israel Finkelstein and historian Neil Asher Silberman. The series has a corresponding book of the same name (which I'm currently reading) whose subtitle is "Archaeology's new vision of ancient Israel and the origin of its sacred texts."
The documentary is divided into four parts, each corresponding to a stage of "history" as told by the Bible: 1.) The Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob) 2.) The Exodus (Moses and the Israelites' escape from Egypt) 3.) The Kings (David, Solomon, etc.) and 4.) The Book (the scribes, priests, and prophets who first wrote down the stories). What the film (and the book) seek to do is compare/contrast the stories told in the Bible with what we currently know about the history of the Middle East, based on the latest archaeological discoveries--and new discoveries are constantly being made. Archaeology, like any science, is an ongoing endeavor and (unlike a static text) a work-in-progress. While acknowledging the incomplete nature of their task, Finkelstein and Silberman are able to shed some amazing light on the historicity of the Bible stories.
Before getting into specific Bible stories, it's important to know when the Bible stories were first assembled and compiled into something like the form we have today. In the case of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), this compiling probably happened in the 6th and 7th centures B.C.E., roughly around the time of Israel's defeat and captivity by Babylon. In another post, I wrote a report on Richard Elliot Friedman's excellent book "Who Wrote the Bible?" which lays our the general arguments for this dating. You can read that report HERE.
Ironically, it was two great disasters, or calamites, in Israel's history that compelled priests and scribes to assemble scattered traditions and begin compiling them into a single book. First, in 722 B.C.E., the powerful Assyrian empire conquered and defeated the larger northern kingdom of Israel. This caused a torrent of refugees to flee south to the much smaller (and less developed) kingdom of Judah, and its capitol Jerusalem. Suddenly, in a relatively short span of time, this tiny kingdom found its population growing--giving Judah an increasing sense of its importance as a nation.
A king named Josiah began religious and political reforms, which included assembling traditions of north and south into a unifiying national text, full of powerful stories that would give identity and purpose to this emerging nation. Unfortunately, this glorious project was interrupted when Josiah was killed by Egyptians and the emerging nation of Judah was conquered by Babylon, Jerusalem destroyed, and its people carried away into exile.
It was in exile, in Babylon, that the project begun by Josiah, of creating a book of national/religious identity, would continue with new intensity. Having lost their land, the book became everything. Their identity, their history, their hopes and dreams were all placed on this Book. Other ancient cultures actually referred to the Israelites as "the People of the Book."
With this understanding in mind, that the Bible (for our purposes, the Torah) was written in specific historical circumstances (before and after the exile), for a specific social purpose (to create a national identity) will help us make sense of its stories. Knowing the context helps us understand texts, especially texts from cultures and times far removed from our own (like the Bible). The biblical writers were not historians in the modern sense. They were limited to their received oral traditions and the world in which they lived (and, depending on your level of faith, divine inspiration). Not surpirsingly, then, as we read these stories, we will quite often find what Finkelstein and Silberman call "seventh century perceptions presented in ancient costume," meaning that the writers' vision of history was informed by their own times. Sort of like how Italian Renaissance painters imagined that biblical characters dressed like Renaissance-era Italians. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's dive into the archaeology of the Bible, and what it teaches us. We begin with the stories of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) from the book of Genesis.
Finkelstein and Silberman being with an investigation into some of the earliest stories of the Bible--the so-called Patriarchs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were like the ancestral "founding fathers" of the nation of Israel. Is there archaeological evidence that these characters existed? According the the genealogy of the Bible, Abraham and his sons lived around 2000 B.C.E.
There is no archaeological evidence of real persons named Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. This, of course, doesn't mean they couldn't have existed. After all, they were wandering nomads who were probably illiterate. What traces would they have left?
What is problematic with the biblical accounts of the Patriarchs, what really calls into question their historicity, are historical anachronisms in the text. That is, references in the stories to things or places which simply did not exist in 2000 B.C.E. Genesis contains a few notable notable anachronisms:
1.) Domesticated camels. There are numerous references in the stories of the patriarchs to camels being domesticated and used as beasts of burden. However, archaeology has shown that camels were not domesticated until well after 1000 B.C.E. Historical anachronism #1 = domesticated camels.
2.) The existence of the Philistines. In Genesis chapter 26, Isaac encounters Abimelech, king of the Philistines. We now know, through archaeology, that the Philistines (or "sea peoples") were not present in Canaan until after 1200 B.C.E. In 2000 B.C.E., when the partiarches were supposedly wandering around Canaan, there were no Philistines. Historical anachronism #2 = the Philistines.
3.) The Arameans. In the stories of Jacob, a people group called the Arameans play a big role. However, archaeological evidence places the Arameans in the region after 1100 B.C.E. Historical anachronism #3 = the Arameans.
4.) Assyria. The book of Genesis contains references to the Assyrian empire, which did not exist in 2000 B.C.E. Historical anachronism #4 = Assyria.
Finkelstein and Silberman give lots more examples of historical anachronisms, like Arabian trade caravans that did not exist in 2000 B.C.E., plus lots of place names and cultures mentioned in the stories of the Patriarchs which came after the supposed adventures of Abraham, Isaaac, and Jacob.
So how do we make sense of historical anachronisms like the camels, Philistines, Arameans, trade routes, etc.? Well, they make sense if we understand that the text was compiled around the 7th century B.C.E. All of the anachronstic place names and things did exist in the 7th century. The biblical writers did not have access to archaeology. They had oral traditions and the real world around them.
These stories make total sense when viewed in light of when/'where they were written--7th century Judah. The characters and places in the stories of the patriarchs give a brilliant sort of "pious prehistory" to the emerging nation of Judah. In a sense, the stories of the patriarchs serve as a kind of Judean nationalist propaganda. But calling them propaganda doesn't do justice to their literary brilliance. According to Finkelstein and Silberman, the stories of the patriarchs were most likely stitched together from separate traditions of north and south, woven into a kind of family/national history, which is exactly what king Josiah was trying to create after the fall of the northern Kingdom.
Does calling these stories "myth" or "legend" or "prehistory" strip them of their power? I don't think so. I think of myth as a truth deeper than mere facts. I'll end with the words of Finkelstein and Silberman, who put it better than I can:
"The great genius of the seventh century creators of this national epic was the way in which they wove the earlier stories together without stripping them of their humanity or individual distinctiveness. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob remain at the same time vivid spiritual portraits and the metaphorical ancestors of thye people of Israel. And the twelve sons of Jacob were brought into the tradition as junior members of more complete genealogy. In the artistry of the biblical narrative, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were indeed made into a single family. It was the power of legend that united them--in a manner far more powerful and timeless than the fleeting adventures of a few historical individuals herding sheep in the highlands of Canaan could ever have done."
Stay tuned for The Bible and Archaeology Part 2: Did the Exodus Happen?