Until very recently, I had (like most people) the vague idea that the basic Biblical story of a people being in captivity in Egypt, then somehow escaping and settling in the land that is now known as Israel and Palestine was true. Of course, one had to allow for the fact that the stories may have been embellished over time, with all kinds for spectacular miracles and tales of heroism added in to make it more compelling drama. The stories of Moses parting the Red Sea, the Sun being made to stand still, and similar miracles all violate well-established scientific laws and cannot be taken seriously except by those who are determined to believe them because they want to.
But the credibility of the basic historical outline was enhanced by the fact that as we got to periods later that about 600 BCE and approached the time of Jesus, there were other non-Biblical contemporary records that corroborated some of the historical events written about in the Bible. These corroborations of some later events enabled people to believe that the earlier events must also be true. In addition, early archeologists in the Middle East began with the presumption that the Bible stories were entirely true and interpreted all their findings to corroborate them, thus adding to the credibility of the Biblical history.
The earliest challenges to the Bible’s historical accuracy came in the late nineteenth century from what is called the “higher criticism,” which applied the techniques of linguistic and textual analysis to written documents. The study of the language used in the Bible, and the allusions and references that were used therein, enabled scholars to deduce important information about the chronology of events and when the books were written.
Such careful scrutiny of Biblical texts led scholars to conclude that the first five books of the Bible were not written by Moses (as popularly supposed), but were created after the period of Babylonian exile and captivity (586-538 BCE) by Jewish scribes who tried to put a collection of older writings into some order.
It is important to remember that the precursor to the modern Hebrew language only became codified around 800 BCE and thus the first books of the Bible only were written about a century later. But if you take the calendars deduced from the genealogies of the Bible at face value, the early events involving Abraham must have happened about 1800 BCE. Thus, when they were being actually written, the books in the Old Testament were describing events that supposedly happened well over a thousand years earlier. Thus most of the Biblical ‘history’ of that earlier time had to be based on myths, legends, and oral histories, all of which are notoriously unreliable and susceptible to distortions introduced either unwittingly or deliberately by their creators in order to serve political and nationalist and religious goals. At best, these books must be viewed as representing nothing more than a codification of folklore, oral traditions, and propagandizing.
Of course, this does not prove that the events described in those books never happened but it does suggest that those stories should be treated on a par with Norse and Greek and Indian mythology in terms of their credibility.
The only reliable evidence of events of times earlier than the first millennium BCE are those that have been unearthed by scientific methods, such as archaeological studies. Oral and written histories can mislead, but the trail left by the ruins of past societies, the rubble of their homes, and the remnants of their pots and tools and bones and other debris, provide a much more unbiased record of how people lived and migrated. People write with a conscious purpose and future audience in mind, but they live for the present. In our daily activities, we do not deliberately set out to create evidence to guide future archeologists. If I am writing my autobiography, I do it with an eye to what future readers will think of me, but when I take out the trash, I am not wondering what the detritus of my life will say about my society and me a thousand years hence.
For a long while, the archeological records seemed to support the basic ideas of Biblical history. Daniel Lazare, in the article False Testament in the March 2002 issue of Harper’s magazine, sums up the situation that existed until about two decades ago. He says that “it seemed clear that the Israelites had started out as a nomadic band somewhere in the vicinity of ancient Mesopotamia; that they had migrated first to Palestine and then to Egypt; and that, following some sort of conflict with the authorities, they had fled into the desert under the leadership of a mysterious figure who was either a lapsed Jew or, as Freud maintained, a high-born priest of the royal sun god Aton whose cult had been overthrown in a palace coup. Although much was unknown, archaeologists were confident that they had succeeded in nailing down at least these few basic facts.”
This pretty much is the kind of hazy idea that most people have of that time and it seemed to be supported by evidence. The support that earlier archeologists who went to the Middle East in the 19th century provided for the basic Bible stories was not an accident, though. These early archeological studies were done by people who were themselves deeply religious and they were confident that their studies would uncover facts that would be fully consistent with the Bible. They took the basic Bible narratives as more-or-less factual and sought to find, or at least interpret, evidence that confirmed those accounts. Hence, as Lazare says, “The first archaeologists were thus guilty of one of the most elementary of scientific blunders: rather than allowing the facts to speak for themselves, they had tried to fit them into a preconceived theoretical framework.” Because of this “Evidence that buttressed the biblical account was eagerly sought out, while evidence that contradicted it was ignored.”
As a result of this earlier work, the strong perception was created over time that there has been a consistent pattern of evidence being unearthed that buttressed the basic stories of the Bible so that we can regard at least that part of the document that occurs after Noah’s flood and begins with Abraham as historically true. This is the image that is widespread today. But that view has changed dramatically with the rise of a new generation of archeologists who did not feel constrained, as their predecessors had done, to interpret their discoveries to be consistent with the Bible.
Next: What modern archeology reveals.
POST SCRIPT: This amazing universe
This video clip of the Galaxy Song from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life never loses its appeal, because of its scientific accuracy, the cleverness of its lyrics, and the reminder it provides that, thanks to science, we are able to comprehend so much about this vast and amazing universe that we have been fortunate enough to be born into. The last words of the song are:
So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.