If much of the history reportedly recorded in the Bible prior to about 600 BCE is false, why were the stories invented? Why did the ancient scribes make up all this stuff? Daniel Lazare in his March 2002 Harper’s article False Testament points out that it is not simply that they were deliberately lying, in the way that would be shameful for any modern chronicler of supposedly factual events. They were not the early equivalents of people who would be currently drubbed out of the historical profession for their actions. Lazare suggests that they were working under a different paradigm, with a different concept of truth.
To say that the Jerusalem priesthood intentionally cooked up a phony history is to assume that the priests possessed a modern concept of historical truth and falsehood, and surely this is not so. As the biblical minimalist Thomas L. Thompson has noted, the Old Testament’s authors did not subscribe to a sequential chronology but to some more complicated arrangement in which the great events of the past were seen as taking place in some foggy time before time. The priests, after all, were not inventing a past; they were inventing a present and, they trusted, a future.
They also may had practical reasons for making up certain specific stories, such as the one which had them as exiles returning from Egypt and capturing the land of Canaan from its then inhabitants, instead of the story supported by scientific evidence which has them arising out of an indigenous people of that region, separating from the other indigenous peoples in a manner similar to speciation. Lazare says:
One reason may have been that people in the ancient world did not establish rights to a particular piece of territory by farming or by raising families on it but by seizing it through force of arms. Indigenous rights are an ideological invention of the twentieth century A.D. and are still not fully established in the twenty-first, as the plight of today’s Palestinians would indicate. The only way that the Israelites could establish a moral right to the land they inhabited was by claiming to have conquered it sometime in the distant past. Given the brutal power politics of the day, a nation either enslaved others or was enslaved itself, and the Israelites were determined not to fall into the latter category.
The main driving force for the invention of the Biblical narrative may have been the advent of monotheism around 650 BCE, which required quite a different worldview from the earlier polytheistic ways of thinking.
Monotheism was unquestionably a great leap forward. At a time when there was no science, no philosophy, and no appreciable knowledge of the outside world, an obscure, out-of-the-way people somehow conceived of a lone deity holding the entire universe in his grasp. This was no small feat of imagination, and its consequences were enormous.
Monotheism had been advocated earlier by some priests but had not been rigorously enforced by the rulers of Israel and Judah. But when the northern land of Israel was conquered in 722 BCE by the Assyrians, the priests in the southern land of Judah used that as a propaganda tool and blamed that defeat on the fact that the people of Israel harbored a multiplicity of gods, thus incurring the wrath of the one true god, which by the kind of happy coincidence that always accompanies such assertions, happened to be their own god, of course. They argued that the conquest of Israel by the Assyrians was because god was punishing them for this transgression. (This is a remarkably similar tactic to what is adopted by current-day radical clerics like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson when they blame the events of 9/11, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and the like on the anger that god feels because of homosexuality or abortion or whatever sex-related obsession they think god has.)
The priests also claimed at this time to have found ‘the book of the law’ (which is now known as the book of Deuteronomy) in a temple and told Josiah about it.
The priests’ strategy seemed to have worked. As a result of this warning and what was in the book, King Josiah of Judah purged his own land of all other gods to avoid the same fate. But as is often the case, god did not seem to be appeased by this act of obedience and further disasters befell the people of Judah. Even after the strict enforcing of monotheism, the people of Judah were also conquered and sent into captivity and exile in Babylon in 586 BCE. The early Jewish priests were not the last religious people to try to interpret political developments and natural disasters in ways that served their own ends, only to find that following their advice did not prevent future disasters and setbacks.
A reason why the advent of monotheism might have led to the Bible is given by Lazare: “A single, all-powerful god required a single set of sacred texts, and the process of composition and codification that led to what we now know as the Bible began under King Josiah and continued well into the Christian era.”
Thus began the creation of a single narrative that sought to retroactively create a past, justify the present, and to lay the groundwork for a new social order in the future.
Of course, we should not assume that just because there are better historical records after 700 BCE or so, that what the Bible records after that period is completely accurate. The process of massaging the Biblical text to create a particular message did not end with that initial compilation. As I wrote about earlier, the fact that the Bible had to be copied by hand until the advent of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1440 allowed it to be changed over a period of two thousand years to serve various agendas as it was handed down through the generations.
The Bible should not be taken seriously as history. Instead it should be seen more as a guide to what, at various times in the past, people believed, how they perceived themselves, and how they wanted to be perceived by others.