November 29, 2006
The Bible as history-3: Enter modern archeology
An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 21, 2000, p. A19) describes the surprising results of recent archeological research into the period covered by the Bible. As the tools of archeology developed and became more refined within the past two decades, and archeologists themselves felt no need to have their findings conform to a particular religious narrative, their results went in surprising directions.
So how much of what we believe to be historically true based on the Bible now stands up under the scrutiny of modern archaeological evidence? Very little, it turns out. The Bible is not only a poor source of science and cosmology, it is not even a good source of history.
In the Chronicle article, Tel Avis University archeologist Ze'ev Herzog is quoted as saying: "This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom."
The article says that among academics there is broad consensus on most features, although scholars differ about details. Reporting on two recent conferences, it says: "None of the scholars speaking at either conference believe that the Bible's historical sections can be accepted as literal, accurate descriptions of historical events. They also agree that the extra-biblical evidence for events described in the Bible dwindles the farther back in time one goes. King Ahab of Israel [who reigned around 850 BCE] is well-documented in other inscriptions from elsewhere in the Middle East; the united monarchy of David and Solomon is not. Evidence exists of the rise of the new Israelite nation in the Palestinian highlands during the late Bronze Age [1600-1200 BCE] - the age of the Judges - but it can be interpreted in different ways. There is no external evidence at all for the patriarchs and, in fact, the biblical description contains contradictions and anachronisms that, scholars generally agree, seem to place the patriarchs in the age of the Judges rather than several generations earlier, as the Bible has it."
Daniel Lazare confirms this modern view in his March 2002 Harper's article False Testament. He says that the new version of history unearthed by archeologists is quite different from what most people believe.
Not only is there no evidence that any such figure as Abraham ever lived but archaeologists believe that there is no way such a figure could have lived given what we now know about ancient Israelite origins.
. . .
A growing volume of evidence concerning Egyptian border defenses, desert sites where the fleeing Israelites supposedly camped, etc., indicates that the flight from Egypt did not occur in the thirteenth century before Christ; it never occurred at all.
. . .
Rather than a band of invaders who fought their way into the Holy Land, the Israelites are now thought to have been an indigenous culture that developed west of the Jordan River around 1200 B.C. Abraham, Isaac, and the other patriarchs appear to have been spliced together out of various pieces of local lore.
. . .
Moses was no more historically real than Abraham before him.
. . .
[A]rchaeologists believe that David was not a mighty potentate whose power was felt from the Nile to the Euphrates but rather a freebooter who carved out what was at most a small duchy in the southern highlands around Jerusalem and Hebron. Indeed, the chief disagreement among scholars nowadays is between those who hold that David was a petty hilltop chieftain whose writ extended no more than a few miles in any direction and a small but vociferous band of "biblical minimalists" who maintain that he never existed at all.
. . .
The Davidic Empire, which archaeologists once thought as incontrovertible as the Roman, is now seen as an invention of Jerusalem-based priests in the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. who were eager to burnish their national history. The religion we call Judaism does not reach well back into the second millennium B.C. but appears to be, at most, a product of the mid-first.
This is not to say that individual elements of the story are not older. But Jewish monotheism, the sole and exclusive worship of an ancient Semitic god known as Yahweh, did not fully coalesce until the period between the Assyrian conquest of the northern Jewish kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. and the Babylonian conquest of the southern kingdom of Judah in 586.
I must admit that all this came as a surprise to me, although this knowledge seems to be widespread in the archeological community. And given my past religious training, my interest was piqued by the question of why all this was not more well known and taught as part of routine Bible study.
In hindsight, it is easy to see that I should never have taken the Biblical stories seriously. Religious texts, whatever the religion, are unlikely to be reliable sources of history. Their authors are not disinterested writers. They are usually religious people, perhaps priests and leaders or scribes working under their direction, and are essentially trying to provide a rationale for people to believe in that religion and to provide authority for religious leaders to enforce discipline on their members. It is in their interest to embellish the historical accounts in order to legitimize the status quo, to give people a sense of inevitability about their status, and to provide legitimacy to the priestly class. To do this, they have to create a grand narrative to describe god's special interest in them, the rules that they must follow, and his dislike for people of other religions.
If we want to know what really happened in the deep past, we must not believe the accounts given in religious texts unless they are confirmed by investigations using the painstaking, evidence-based methods of science.
Next: How scientific analysis of the past works.
POST SCRIPT: We should have known
Observers of soon-to-be-former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when he was relishing the idea that he was a brilliant thinker will never forget his famous quote:
Reports that say something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know.
But as BBC's Radio 4 points out, while this may sound initially like gibberish, actually Rumsfeld simply did not go far enough.