The Bible as history-4: How science unearths the past

(See part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

The two main tools that are available for trying to piece together the real history of Biblical times are those of literary analysis and archeology. In the former, the analysts carefully examine texts for literary clues as to the dates and places where events are reported to have occurred. In the latter, fieldwork in the area tries to find concrete evidence of the rise and fall and migration of societies. And when the two methods are combined, it becomes possible to reconstruct events and see what Biblical stories hold up and what don’t.

And what it seems to show is that the stories of the Bible that occurred earlier than around 800 BC have little or no support and are often contradicted outright. A key myth that was overturned was about Abraham having lived around 1800 BCE, and the wanderings of a people associated with him. This story has been completely undermined by a combination of literary and archeological analysis and there is no reason to believe it to be true.

For an example of the kind of analysis that is done, take simple facts like camels being used for transport. The Bible frequently mentions camel caravans during the various migrations of people, including those of Abraham. As Daniel Lazare says in his March 2002 Harper’s article False Testament, nowadays we tend to take for granted that camels were always domesticated animals, routinely available to be used for transport purposes. But in actuality, studies of ancient animal bones show that as far as that region was concerned, camels were not used for such domestic purposes until well after 1000 BCE.

If you try to shift the dates of Abraham’s travels to overcome problems like that with the camels, you run into other problems.

Subsequent research into urban development and nomadic growth patterns indicated that no such mass migration had taken place and that several cities mentioned in the Genesis account did not exist during the time frame Albright had suggested. Efforts to salvage the theory by moving up Abraham’s departure to around 1500 B.C. foundered when it was pointed out that, this time around, Genesis failed to mention cities that did dominate the landscape during this period. No matter what time frame was advanced, the biblical text did not accord with what archaeologists were learning about the land of Canaan in the second millennium.

Another problem arises with the exodus from Egypt. The evidence points to the fact that such an event did not happen.

The most obvious concerned the complete silence in contemporary Egyptian records concerning the mass escape of what the Bible says were no fewer than 603,550 Hebrew slaves.
. . .
Not only was there a dearth of physical evidence concerning the escape itself, as archaeologists pointed out, but the slate was blank concerning the nearly five centuries that the Israelites had supposedly lived in Egypt prior to the Exodus as well as the forty years that they supposedly spent wandering in the Sinai. Not so much as a skeleton, campsite, or cooking pot had turned up, [Tel Aviv University archeologist Israel] Finkelstein and [journalist Neil Asher] Silberman noted, even though “modern archeological techniques are quite capable of tracing even the very meager remains of hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads all over the world.” Indeed, although archaeologists have found remains in the Sinai from the third millennium B.C. and the late first, they have found none from the thirteenth century.

Another myth that was overthrown by archeological studies was that the land of Canaan was captured by Israelites returning from Egypt after several epic battles. In actuality, Lazare writes:

Resurrecting a theory first proposed in the 1920s, an Israeli named Yohanan Aharoni infuriated the Israeli archaeological establishment by arguing that evidence in support of an Israelite war of conquest in the thirteenth century B.C. was weak and unconvincing. Basing his argument on a redating of pottery shards found at a dig in the biblical city of Hazor, Aharoni proposed instead that the first Hebrew settlers had filtered into Palestine in a nonviolent fashion, peacefully settling among the Canaanites rather than putting them to the sword.
. . .
Rather than revealing that Canaan was entered from the outside, analysis of ancient settlement patterns indicated that a distinctive Israelite culture arose locally around 1200 B.C. as nomadic shepherds and goatherds ceased their wanderings and began settling down in the nearby uplands. Instead of an alien culture, the Israelites were indigenous. Indeed, they were highly similar to other cultures that were emerging in the region around the same time–except for one thing: whereas archaeologists found pig bones in other sites, they found none among the Israelites. A prohibition on eating pork may have been one of the earliest ways in which the Israelites distinguished themselves from their neighbors.

Another story that is strongly believed to be true but is very likely to be a myth is the story of David and Solomon being powerful kings who ruled over a large region of territory and lived in some splendor.

If the Old Testament is to be believed, David and Solomon, rulers of the southern kingdom of Judah from about 1005 to about 931 B.C., made themselves masters of the northern kingdom of Israel as well. They represent, in the official account, a rare moment of national unity and power; under their reign, the combined kingdom was a force throughout the Fertile Crescent.
. . .
According to the Bible, Solomon was both a master builder and an insatiable accumulator. He drank out of golden goblets, outfitted his soldiers with golden shields, maintained a fleet of sailing ships to seek out exotic treasures, kept a harem of 1,000 wives and concubines, and spent thirteen years building a palace and a richly decorated temple to house the Ark of the Covenant. Yet not one goblet, not one brick, has ever been found to indicate that such a reign existed.

The battle of Jericho that has been immortalized in song as where Joshua caused the walls to come tumbling down also lacks any supporting evidence. “Although archaeologists claimed in the 1930s to have uncovered evidence that the walls of Jericho had fallen much as the Book of Joshua said they had, a British archaeologist named Kathleen Kenyon was subsequently able to demonstrate, based on Mycenaean pottery shards found amid the ruins, that the destruction had occurred no later than 1300 B.C., seventy years or more before the conquest could have happened. Whatever caused the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down, it was not Joshua’s army.”

Needless to say, these recent archeological discoveries have not gone down well with those who want to believe the myths. Lazare says “the facts turned up by the new studies predictably angered the establishment that wanted to preserve the old ideas and cling to the Biblical view of history as much as possible.”

This kind of scientific research poses the same problem for religious believers as evolution by natural selection does. At some point you have to choose whether you want to follow the path of science and go wherever the evidence leads you, or whether you want to go counter to the evidence and believe myths and folklore.

Next: Why the Bible was created

POST SCRIPT: Interesting talk TODAY

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History FRONTIERS of ASTRONOMY Lecture Series is having what promises to be a very interesting talk TODAY, Thursday, Nov 30, at 8:00 pm

University of Chicago and Fermilab physicist Edward Rocky Kolb will be talking about “The Quantum and the Cosmos.”

Long before plants, stars or galaxies emerged, the Universe consisted of an exploding quantum soup of “elementary” particles. Encoded in this formless, shapeless soup were the seeds of cosmic structure, which over billions of years grew into the beautiful and complex Universe we observe today. Edward Kolb explores the connection between the “inner space” of the quantum and the “outer space” of the cosmos. The inner space/outer space connection may hold the key to the nature of the dark matter holding our galaxy together and the mysterious dark energy pulling our universe apart.

Admission is free. For more information, please go to the CMNH website and click of the “Calendar of Events.”


  1. Kanook says

    You seem to have most (most) of your writtings on the mark — but you who depend so much on facts seem to discount too much…too bad!

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