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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.

Comments

  1. Kevin says

    GREAT GREAT ARTICLE.

    This is a great article and a great eye opener. I hope everybody reads it and realizes the truth.

    I first started having doubts when one of my best friends (who was blond and blue eyed) one day told me that he was Jewish. I also learned a lot of things from him. One thing I found out from him was that the Jews were slaves in Egypt and were led out by Moses.

    Suddenly, it did not make sense. I could never imagine his blond and blue-eyed ancestors ever living (and surviving) Egypt, an African country. Suddenly, the whole old testament stories started to crumble in my mind.

    One thing I would suggest is links to the sources, such as the chronicles article and the Haaretz article (if they are available online).

  2. says

    Kevin,

    I try to provide links whenever I can but these source articles are behind subscription walls, so people will have to use libraries to read the full text. I have given the dates of publication so it should be easy to retrieve them.

  3. says

    There is a great article that presents an opposition viewpoint from the one found in the citations Mano uses (the Harper’s and CHE articles). Anyone interested in reading the article to compare to what is written here can go to:

    http://www.aish.com/societyWork/sciencenature/Archaeology_and_the_Exodus.asp

    Part of the science of archeology is the interpretation of the uncovered artifacts. This interpretation is obviously somewhat subjective in nature even by those who wish to use the findings to support the Bible narrative.

    Finally, everyone has a bias with no exceptions. There are archeologists who are biased for and against the Bible. True objectivity is difficult to obtain and more precious than gold. We all want it but few if any of us have it.

    Jim D.

  4. says

    Jim,

    The whole basis of the article you cite is simply to repeat the truism that you cannot prove a negative. It does not provide a single piece of positive evidence to support the claims of the Bible. The whole article can be summed up in the single passage: “Archeology can only prove the existence of artifacts unearthed, not disprove that which hasn’t been found. Lack of evidence… is no evidence of lack.” Hence it is implied that the Bible can be true because we can’t prove that things like the Exodus never happened.

    But people who believe something for which there is no positive evidence, purely on the basis of the absence of evidence against it, belong in the same category as believers in unicorns, fairies, Santa Claus, and the like.

    For example, do you believe in any of those things? If not, why don’t you believe in (say) unicorns? No evidence has been unearthed that prove that they do not. There may be unicorn droppings in places that have not been searched yet.

  5. says

    Mano,

    First off I know this is from a long time ago and I both appreciate and am impressed that you still care enough to take the time to engage me.

    You wrote:

    “The whole article can be summed up in the single passage: “Archeology can only prove the existence of artifacts unearthed, not disprove that which hasn’t been found. Lack of evidence… is no evidence of lack.””

    Although I would certainly say that the primary purpose for the article I cited was to defend against the articles you cited (among others) I would not go so far as to say that it presented no positive evidence for the exodus (for example only). The article had 2 parts with a link from the first to the second so perhaps this is the misunderstanding. The article I cite gives an honest assessment of the available evidence (which in many cases is the same evidence your articles use but also cites evidence not used in the articles you cited) and an alternate interpretation of that evidence. Positive evidence is given. None of the articles (that you or I cited) is primary literature. I think they are best described as commentaries on primary literature.

    Both of the articles you cited (which I read) in my opinion present an interpretation by the scientists involved as facts. I disagree that the interpretation offered is fact (for instance, the anachronism of the use of camels by Abraham I think is at the least highly debatable). The minimalists have an alternative interpretation to the maximalists based upon the same evidence that is all and both sides have excellent and thoughtful scientists I am sure (I am not an archeologist). They are not equally right though (either the exodus happened or it didn’t-one of them is obviously wrong) so the interpretation is important. The point I was trying to make is that in the science of archeology the interpretation of the artifacts is a somewhat subjective endeavor. There are procedures and rigorous protocols and algorithms I am sure but it has a subjective component to it. It is easy for the interpreter to bring biases into the mix. I would think this is especially true in this area of study because: (a) the events being studied happened between 2500 to 4000 years ago which is a long time; and, (b) because of the obvious religious overtones and the age-old battles between various religions and between theists and atheists. You accuse the maximalists of having brought their religious bias into the equation and I say that your scientists are no less biased. Surely you don’t contend that only religious people have an agenda?

    Jim

  6. says

    Jim D,

    But you have not answered my question: Do you believe in unicorns and/or dragons? After all, there are plenty of mentions of such animals in old books, such as the stories of St. George and the dragon. And no one has been able to conclusively prove that they never existed. If you don’t believe in their existence, why not?

  7. Jim D says

    Mano,

    Sorry about that. I do not believe that unicorns exist now or ever except for in the imagination of human beings. I hold this position because there is no evidence to support the actual existance of unicorns. Dragons are another matter altogether.
    Do you believe that life on earth started via a natural process. Why or why not?

    Jim

  8. says

    Jim D,

    Yes, I do believe that life started on Earth as a natural process. Why? Because we have been able to steadily increase our understanding the chain of steps that would lead to the creation of life, investigate each stage in the laboratory, and show that the conditions existed in the past for many (but not all as yet) of those steps to occur naturally.

    There are still important unanswered questions, the main one being the creation of the first self-replicating molecule, and another being how sufficient concentrations of the raw materials could have accumulated in order to drive the chemical reactions forward.

    But given the fact that so many of the other steps are being steadily understood, there is no reason to think that these will not be understood too. Why give up the search when we are so close?

    So what is the difference in the quality or quantity of the evidence for unicorns, dragons, and god that tells you to disbelieve in the existence of the first, believe the last, and be not sure about the middle?

  9. Jim D says

    Actually the evidence you present is nothing more than simple organic chemistry. We know hundreds of ways of making lipids, carbohydrates, nucleosides, proteins, etc. This kind of chemistry is done everyday in sophomore chemistry labs, in hotel rooms around the USA and in the jungles of Columbia by folks who don’t have PhD’s and probably often didn’t even graduate from high school. Seriously though, chemical evolution is an interesting subject (there was a very interesting article by Stan Miller’s group in Discover magazine a while back about a 25 year experiment they did-see http://discovermagazine.com/2008/feb/did-life-evolve-in-ice for a link) but it isn’t really what I am talking about. Very interesting research but none of it makes life. I am not talking about figuring out how the first organism evolved (important research to be sure). I am talking about figuring out a way to make any life whatsoever. Life is everywhere on this planet-in some of the most unlikely of places. You almost can’t find a place where it isn’t. Yet despite the effort and despite the fact that modern scientists have been spotted 5 billion years of evolution and are blessed with DNA, carbohydrates, lipids, ribosomes, golgi apparati, endoplasmic reticulum, not to mention the whole of biochemical knowledge, etc-despite it all we have found no way to mix the chemicals in the right proportion to start the chemical chain reaction you call life. So there is no evidence that life started by a natural process. Absolutely zero evidence. Not a shred of evidence and yet you still believe.

    But none of this is the point I wanted to make here. In fact I want to make a point that may surprise you. Despite the complete lack of evidence you still believe (and I would say justifiably so given your position) that with continued work that more progress will be made. It isn’t over right (you even rhetorically asked “why stop now”)? Well I agree. In the same way though, as archeologists continue to unearth more and more artifacts perhaps the evidence to bolster the Biblical narrative will grow as well. I mean this is a possibility? I mean the case for the Biblical narrative is not over because Daniel Lazare’s interpretation of the data says it is? There are plenty of archeologists who look at the same data that Lazare’s archeologists looked at and disagreed in the interpretation. So there is some positive evidence now and in the future there may be more. In fact I would think we both agree that there will be more evidence revealed in the future but the key is the interpretation of that evidence. I was merely pointing out that bias in this case is impossible to avoid and that one needs to be careful when reading commentaries such as the articles we each cited because the viewpoint of the author has a way of skewing the data-no matter which side of the divide they are on.

    By the way, just in case you got any idea that I did want to just put a stop to the origin of life research this is not the case. I want to dispel myth number 2348 that atheists have about theists. We do not, by and large, always want to throw our hands up and just say “God did it” and thwart the efforts of science. I agree with you completely. Why stop now I agree. Lets keep going and see what we find.

    Finally, I have an interesting and I think potentially fun hypothetical for you Mano (or anyone else interested). Let’s say that you and I could go forward in time 1000 years. Let’s say that remarkably we haven’t found a way to completely annihilate one another and that life and human societies had just thrived and continued to advance and that research into the development of chemical life and the abiogenesis question was still ongoing. And just for the sake of this hypothetical situation lets say that we still aren’t there yet. Man still haven’t figured out a way to make a living organism no matter how simple or complex. Would this give you any reason whatsoever to reconsider your position on the existence of some intelligent designer? I will gladly turn the hypothetical around once I have your thoughts.

    Jim

  10. Jared says

    Jim,

    You say that there is not a shred of evidence that life was created by natural processes. I disagree entirely. I will start with one, which is actually only circumstantial (circumstantial evidence doesn’t prove anything, but that doesn’t stop it from being a kind of evidence).

    We observe natural processes now and we observe that they appear to have existed in the same way billions of years ago. In this span that natural processes have reign, we observe that there were no living organisms at first and then at some point there was.

    I don’t like to use analogies, but I will indulge myself. It is like if you peak into a room and there are two people, Bob and Jim. You come back later and Bob is murdered and Jim is still there. There is circumstantial evidence that Jim did the deed. However, it is still possible that Hank came in while you were gone and killed Bob. But there is NO evidence that Hank did it because I don’t even know if Hank exists. He is just a construct that I created as a possible doer of things that I’m not sure how were done!

    There is more evidence than that. Much of it is not circumstantial. I don’t think I will do it justice, though.

    Take it easy.

  11. says

    Jim D,

    Sorry for the silence about your hypothetical. It slipped through the cracks.

    I am not sure why the length of time that a problem is unsolved is relevant to whether there is a god or not. After all, there were problems (like a comprehensive understanding of the solar system) that took well over a 1000 years to solve. There were even very well-defined problems like motion of the moon’ perigee took over 60 years to solve and the stability of the solar system was not understood for 200 years. These were all well-defined problems after the adoption of Newton’s laws, and yet they were so difficult. The origin of life question is very difficult one that people have started tackling is a serious way only within the last half-century and one should not be surprised that it will take some time to solve.

    The only way to use time to infer the existence of god is to assume that god wants us to know he exists but he chooses this oblique method of creating an insoluble scientific problem. But if he want us to know he exists, why would he wait for 1000 years?

  12. Jim D says

    Mano,

    I don’t necessarily think the length of time that a problem exists means anything except that it is some indication of the difficulty of the problem. I just thought it was an interesting thought experiment. I appreciate your answer. As a scientist I know how this works. Every experiment, even if it fails to give the result you might have been expecting, just leads to 10 more ideas for new experiments and so it goes. You never run out of experiments and in fact, instead you just pile them up one on another. Scientists are very creative people. The only limiting factor is money and time. Look at how far we have come in our understanding of living organisms since the time of Darwin. It really is amazing! And think of how much more we will learn just in our lifetimes!!!! It is exciting and it is incredible. Still, and I think this is a philosophically debatable point, we know less about the simplest eukaryotic organism that we know about it. It seems that every time we look a little farther or a little deeper we only find that there is yet more to see and understand, and more depth than we at first thought. The end is no where in sight! It really is mind-boggling.

    But if the essence of life (at least from a scientific point of view) is merely chemistry then this is a very solvable problem. There are times as a scientist however, when your lack of ‘success’ in understanding or creating or discovering leads you to consider possibilities that you would not have considered in the beginning. You begin to challenge all assumptions and ask yourself if just maybe you have been looking in the wrong place all along.

    Finally to turn the hypothetical around as promised. If scientists can show that life can be made in a laboratory then this would have serious implications for me. I do not hang everything on this but it would cause me to have a serious moment of pause for reflection. No question I would be forced to rethink things and to reconsider other possibilities.

    Jim

  13. says

    Jim,

    I think you have stated very nicely an important dilemma faced by scientists: when do you begin to suspect that you are barking up the wrong tree and need to bark up another one? The length of time that people have been working on a problem is undoubtedly a major factor.

    But I suspect the time has passed when scientists would conclude that a problem is inherently unsolvable and not look for another natural solution. They may have done so in pre-Galileo times but since then the inclination to do that seems to have declined steadily and, with the ascent of Darwin’s theory, quantum mechanics, and relativity all around 1900, I think that the door leading to divine intervention explanations has been permanently closed.

    To open that door again would, I think, require a miracle of unmistakably divine origin.

    By the way, I am reasonably sure that you have read it but if you haven’t I think you would enjoy Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He deals with precisely the question of how scientists begin to realize that they need a new paradigm, and his examples from physics and chemistry would be familiar to you.

  14. Kevin says

    WHAT RED SEA? MOSES AND EXODUS MYTHS AND TORAH/TALMUD FORGERIES.

    Dr. Mano, since I posted here last year, I have been researching for some sources and links and I have them listed here. I agree with you 100%.

    The main book of Judaism, called the Torah (the first 5 books of the Old Testament, “OT”) is filled with myth of a man called Moses, the myth of Exodus and the persecution of Jews by an Egyptian king who allegedly enslaved them.

    Anybody with a little common-sense knows that the Torah cannot be true. The fact that it is fiction is obvious from Book 1, Page 1. The Earth is not 4000 years old. Cultures (unknown to the scribes) flourished much before. Written records and archeological evidence using carbon dating show man’s presence tens of thousands of years ago, probably over a 100,000 years ago. Greece, Germany, Russia and other places built advanced civilizations long before. A million people cannot live in a vast desert (without water or food supply lines) in a hostile nation for 40 years–and leave no trace. The techniques of higher criticism showed that the Old Testament was weaved together out of four source documents and was produced much later than claimed. See the article entitled “The Forgery of the Old Testament” by Joseph McCabe:

    http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/joseph_mccabe/religious_controversy/chapter_07.html

    Furthermore, archaeological and historical evidence has repeatedly proven the Old Testament to be myth. For eg., according to Prof. Ze’ev Herzog who teaches in the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, in an article entitled “Deconstructing the Walls of Jericho”, states as follows (as stated by Dr. Mano above):

    “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. ….. Most of those who are engaged in scientific work in the interlocking spheres of the Bible, archaeology and the history of the Jewish people – and who once went into the field looking for proof to corroborate the Bible story – now agree that the historic events relating to the stages of the Jewish people’s emergence are radically different from what that story tells.” (in an article in the Jewish magazine Haaretz, as republished on):

    http://www.truthbeknown.com/biblemyth.htm

    For further evidence, see:

    “False Testament“, published in Harper`s magazine:

    http://www.worldagesarchive.com/Reference_Links/False_Testament_(Harpers).htm

    Also:

    http://www.umsl.edu/~thomaskp/prevoff.htm
    http://www.jesusneverexisted.com/chosen-people.html

    Moses could not have parted the Red Sea, not only because it violates the laws of physics, and there was no Moses, but because there was no Red Sea to cross, since Egypt and Israel have a common land border! The Red Sea is between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, a fact the scribes may not have known since they did not have modern maps.

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