There are two views of history. Academic history is that which is painstakingly recreated by historians, trying to reconstruct as accurately as possible events from long ago using source materials as close to the original time as possible along with other kinds of evidence. But then there is the view of history as consisting of that which we remember long after our courses in history have ended. W. C. Sellar, R. J. Yeatman, and Frank Muir humorously recounted the latter kind of English history in their book 1066 and All That, while Dave Barry did it brilliantly for US history in Dave Barry Slept Here, one of the funniest books I have ever read.
The fact is that to the chagrin of historians, most people’s ideas about past events are quite vague and consist of bits of stories they remember from various sources stitched together to provide some sort of quasi-coherent narrative that may differ wildly from the actual sequence of events.
In researching and writing that many-part series about our common ancestors (which you can find by typing in the keyword ‘ancestor’ in the search box) something that surprised me was how few contemporary records exist of what happened earlier than (say) the first millennium BCE. I realized during the course of that research how little I knew for certain about the past and that most of what I knew I had acquired in the course of religious instruction using the Old Testament of the Bible. I began to wonder just how much of the Bible was actually true as history and decided to do a little digging.
Even during the most religious phases of my life, I had never taken the Bible literally as a source of cosmology and other origins. The Genesis stories of how the universe came to be, Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark and the like were to be understood as fiction. Of course, like other ‘modern’ religious people, I took these fictional accounts to be metaphors signifying deeper truths about the role of god in the world.
I also did not take the Bible as a source of science. The stories about seas being parted, the Sun made to stand still, and people rising from the dead were bizarre and unbelievable and inconsistent. The miracles were too contradictory of the laws of science to merit serious consideration.
But what about the Bible as history? Once we got past the early creation stories of Genesis, I pretty much accepted that the Bible was recording actual events, although clearly the authors of the texts had spiced up the narrative with miracles and whatnot to make it more compelling and readable.
Before I report on what I found as to the accuracy of the Biblical accounts, here is a brief overview of what most of us probably remember about history as told in the Bible. I will give here just the bare bones history, leaving out all the rampant sex, incest, adultery, treachery, intrigue, murder, and genocide that fill its pages. People who have not read the Bible themselves and have learned the Biblical stories only from religious teachers and priests may be surprised at all the interesting bits those people left out.
The Old Testament stories can be split up into two parts, before Noah’s Ark and the flood, and after. Almost everyone (other than Biblical literalists who believe that everything in the Bible is strictly true) accept that the Genesis accounts up to and including the flood and Noah’s Ark are mythological. The real claim to history begins with the story of Abraham when, after some serious begatting following the flood, the world had a fairly large population. Out of this population there came this person called Abraham (who possibly originated somewhere in Mesopotamia) who was taken by god to the area known as Canaan (which consisted of land that would be currently called Israel and the occupied territories and Gaza and parts of Lebanon and Syria) and was told by god that his descendants would occupy that land.
After spending some time in Egypt (because of a famine back in Canaan) he returned to Canaan and had sons Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac married Rebecca and had twins Jacob (who later came to be called Israel) and Esau. Jacob had 12 sons one of whom was Joseph who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers but prospered there, effectively becoming the pharaoh’s close advisor and a powerful figure. Eventually his whole family joined him in Egypt and lived there and also prospered.
As the Biblical history continues, Joseph eventually died as did the pharaoh who had been his protector, and a new pharaoh ascended the throne who did not look kindly at the Israelites in their midst and started treating them badly. Then Moses came along and took the Israelites back to Canaan, with the Bible describing the route they took. After Moses got the ten commandments from god on Mount Sinai, the Israelites were punished by god for complaining and general bad behavior and spent forty years in the wilderness.
Joshua, Moses’s aide, took over as leader from Moses upon the latter’s death and led the conquest of the land of Canaan. Later on David and Solomon were kings who ruled over major areas of the lands known as Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom). This was followed by a whole lot more wars and bloodshed, not to mention rampant sex, incest, adultery, treachery, intrigue, murder, and genocide.
After that the story gets more complicated and confusing with lots of stuff going on, various kings and prophets coming and going (along with the rampant sex, incest, etc.) until finally the people of Israel go into exile and captivity in Babylon (then ruled by Nebuchadnezzar) in 586 BCE. In 538 BCE, Cyrus, king of Persia, the new dominant power in the region, overcame the Babylonians and allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem. The Old Testament version of history stops around 450 BCE and there is then a gap until the New Testament.
That is pretty much early history as told by the Bible.
Next: Why people think the early Biblical history is largely true.
POST SCRIPT: Suspicions confirmed
On November 14, I wrote inThe October Surprise That Failed? that I suspected that the bombing of the madrassa in Pakistan that killed 82 people was done by the US because they thought that Ayman al-Zawahiri was there. The government of Pakistan has now confirmed that this is the case, despite its earlier insistence that they had carried out the attack. The Sunday Times Christina Lamb reports:
“We thought it would be less damaging if we said we did it rather than the US,” said a key aide to President Pervez Musharraf. “But there was a lot of collateral damage and we’ve requested the Americans not to do it again.”
The Americans are believed to have attacked after a tip-off that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy leader of Al-Qaeda, was present.
The lying by the US and Pakistan governments about their actions in these wars has become so commonplace, and so uncaring about the deaths of civilians, that it is amazing that anyone gives them any credence.