How the Biblical myths came about


Many of us nonreligious people know that pretty much all of the stuff in the Bible are myths that have very little historical foundation, except on the few occasions when it makes contact with events that have independent corroboration and these occur much later in the narrative, beginning with the Assyrian conquest. Independent scholarship in the fields of archeology and other areas have found scant evidence to support the early and foundational stories of Abraham, Moses, the exodus, and the like.

What many may not realize that Biblical scholars in the better seminaries know these things to be true too and teach it, sometimes to the dismay of students who entered the priesthood partly because of the power of these myths. As one joke goes, if you graduate from a seminary without becoming an atheist, then you haven’t been paying attention.

But those who survive seminary despite this disillusionment know that this information would be explosive if told to their parishioners and would be a bad career move for them and so they keep it a secret to be discussed just amongst themselves and scholars, and continue to feed the myths as facts to the general public

But John Zande writes that especially in the Jewish rabbinical community, many are feeling increasingly uncomfortable engaging in what is after all duplicitous propaganda.

“Would you willingly lie to your children?” asks Rabbi Adam Chalom, Ph.D. “Would you say this is what happened when you know this is not what happened? There’s an ethical question there.” The lie Rabbi Chalom is referring to is the continued maintenance of the popular belief that the Jewish foundation narrative detailed in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) chronicles actual historical events, when in fact it’s been known among biblical archaeologists for nearly three generations that the Five Books of Moses (the Torah) and the Deuteronomistic History of the Nevi’im (including the books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel) are no more a literal account of the early history of the Jewish people than J. R. R. Tolkien’s, The Lord of the Rings, is a literal account of World War 1. “The truth is out there,” continues Rabbi Chalom. “They’ll find this archaeological, evidence-based version of Jewish history… and then they’ll say, why did you lie to me?”

On first inspection Rabbi Chalom’s explicit dismissal of the veracity of the bible might seem an aberration to many not versed in biblical criticism, an odd and unfamiliar voice in the dark, but he in fact represents the consensus position of rabbis in all but orthodox movements of Judaism who today concede (although rarely publically announce) not only that the Patriarchs tales are simple mythology, but also the more intrusive admission that the Israelites were never in Egypt, that Moses was a legendary motif not found in history, that there was never an Exodus, and that there was never a triumphant military conquest of Canaan.

“Some people are surprised, even upset, by these views, yet they are not new,” wrote Rabbi Wolpe in a 2002 article, Did the Exodus Really Happen? “Not piety but timidity keeps many rabbis from expressing what they have long understood to be true.”

In a recent conversation Wolpe confirmed to me an eyebrow lifting anecdote in which he recounts a (nameless) Jewish scholar who while scolding him publically in print for his disclosures at the time took him aside over a lunch one day and privately confessed: “Of course what you say is true, but we should not say it publically.”

So what were the origins of this story and why is it falling apart now?

Archaeology is a difficult science to be so confident about, discovered artefacts rarely line up in such a way to paint a complete picture of ancient eras, and the unusual solidness of the consensus here reflects a century of exhaustive archaeological work conducted across Israel and its environs, including the Sinai and Jordanian hills into which archaeologists poured after the 1967 Six Day War. In the Sinai no evidence was found of an exodus of some 2.5 million people, but more tellingly, in the hills no evidence was found of a 14th or 13th Century BCE “arrival.” Instead, the first population and settlement maps revealed that the hills where the kingdoms of Judah and Israel would seed were only first settled 50 years after the invasion of the Levant by the Sea People (the Philistines) in 1100 BCE.

The reasons why the thesis collapsed was relatively simple to explain: the greater part of the Masoretic Text was a work of 7th and 6th Century BCE fiction conceived of and promoted to service 7th and 6th Century territorial and theological ambitions, not document actual historical events, rather invent them in a legendary time so as to fit the contemporary geopolitical needs of Judah and its Yahwehist priests after the sacking of Mamlekhet Yisra’el (Kingdom of Israel) by the Assyrians in 722 BCE.

“There is no archaeological evidence for any of it,” declared renowned Israeli archaeologist and professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, Israel Finkelstein. “This is something unexampled in history. They [Judah] wanted to seize control of the territories of the kingdom of Israel and annex them, because, they said, `These territories are actually ours and if you have a minute, we’ll tell you how that’s so.’” In a sentence, for Joshua’s purported 12th Century BCE conquest narrative to make sense to a 7th and 6th Century audience a period of enslavement and rightful (miraculous) return was invented, and for that chapter to bear faculty an ancestral origin tale was constructed and put to ink. “The goal was to create a myth saying that Judah is the centre of the world, of the Israelite way of life, against the background of the reality of the later kingdom,” explains Finkelstein. “The people of Judah started to market the story of Joshua’s conquest of the land, which was also written in that period, in order to give moral justification to their territorial longings, to the conquest of the territories of Israel.”

This article focuses on the devastating impact this information would have on the Orthodox Jewish communities but its impact on mainstream Christians would be equally immense and so one can understand why clergy don’t talk about this from the pulpits. But the truth is out there and sooner or later it will come out.

Comments

  1. sonofrojblake says

    This article focuses on the devastating impact this information would have on the Orthodox Jewish communities

    It will have no impact on those communities, devastating or otherwise. Why would it? They’re uninterested in the truth. They Know the Truth. Mere facts have no chance against Capital Letters.

    its impact on mainstream Christians would be equally immense

    I agree with that, in that it will have no impact on mainstream Christians either.

    the truth is out there and sooner or later it will come out

    This is tautological. The truth is, as you say, out there. How can it “come out”, if it already is out? You might just as well say “Hey, Elton John is definitely gay, and one day he’ll come out.” OK, maybe there are people who don’t know, but neither do they care. Rocket Man is still Rocket Man regardless, right?

  2. ianeymeaney says

    A preacher/rabbi/imam’s job is not to inform their congregation. it is to keep the sheeple coming back to worship (and donate their money) next week. If they preached the harsh reality, they would be out of work in a month. Willful ignorance is your friend.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … why is it falling apart now?

    “Now” another chip falls away from the eroding monolith where you happened to see it.

    Already known among Middle East archaeologists and pre-classical historians, the truth got “out there” (to the laic English-speaking world) in 1987 with the publication of Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible?.

    Israel Finkelstein, quoted above, and his colleague Neil Asher Silberman brought out even more fact-based debunking with their books The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts [2002] and David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible’s Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition [2007] (among other titles). The clergy, sadly lacking any means of suppressing such heretical work, does the next most effectual thing it can, ignoring it all with such assiduousness you’d think it was buggering babies in the booths.

  4. CJO says

    Unfortunately, however, Finkelstein and Silberman just replace the old paraphrase with an uncritical retelling of the Deuteronomic History’s own narrative of how it and earlier texts came to be. The bare fact of Josiah’s existence may be on firmer foundation than that of David and Solomon, but “good king Josiah” is as much a retrojected ideal in a legendary foundation narrative.

  5. moarscienceplz says

    A good start would be to point out that Joshua and Jesus are the same name, and they both mean “savior”. Of course the hardcore supernatualists would say that that is because god caused them to be named so, but if looked at from a secular historian viewpoint it becomes an incredible coincidence.

  6. Holms says

    Clearly, these are all self-hating jews bent on undermining Israeli legitimacy.
    /stevor

  7. Dave Huntsman says

    It’s not just the Old Testament. Ehrman and others who have been to Christian divinity schools write of the same thing; they end up shocked when its taught – and it is taught, in all Christian divinity schools except American evangelical ones – that most of the New Testament is simply not factual. And yet all those ordained priests then graduate and for decades will teach that it is, even though they know it isn’t.

  8. grumpyoldfart says

    …the truth is out there and sooner or later it will come out.

    No it won’t. The rank and file believers will never give up the myths.

    I’ve got a booklet titled Bible Absurdities; written by John Bowden for the Rationalist Association of New South Wales in 1968. It covers everything in your post and a whole lot more – and it hasn’t made a scrap of difference. Fifty years later the mugs in the pews still think the truth is the lie and the lie is the truth.

  9. Menyambal says

    It happens that a good many Christians believe that archeology keeps confirming the Bible. New finds keep providing overwhelming support for everything in the Bible, so much so that those who don’t agree are deliberately ignoring the truth.

    I figured that the Exodus story was a good one for exploitation at the time. A bandit named Joshua was sitting in the hills above Canaan, trying to come up with some good invasion propaganda. He makes up a story about capture, Egypt, exodus and forty years, and suddenly he and his friends are the rightful owners.

  10. lorn says

    Good luck with any of this.

    It had been previously presumed that the stories were fanciful inventions written as a purpose-built tale to excuse and justify conquest and annexation. Nothing new about the felt need to create a narrative of supernatural approval for earth-bound necessity and expediency. The US has its own stories of Manifest Destiny and ‘settlement and civilization’ of lands not properly exploited by the native Americans. Native Americans who seem to have their own self-created mythology of divine justification of earlier conquests. Every culture seems to have a narrative of God-granted special status and supernaturally justified cruelty and violence against competing societies and cultures.

    It seems to be a fixture of the human condition that we compete for resources and territory but, usually after the fact, feel the need to have our brutality and violence justified and excused.

    But good luck if you intend that these facts might seriously undermine the established religions. It isn’t going to happen in my lifetime, if ever.

    The case in point that leaps to mind is Scientology. Pretty much everyone knows who created this farcical quasi-religion. We know how he did it. We have previous drafts and a documented history of narrative development from first concepts to lore, and the creation of a bureaucracy. Possibly the clearest and best documented history of any region. Anyone with open eyes can clearly see it is all a man-made story.

    And yet, even with the blatant exposure of one of the most hackneyed and wooden tales ever dreamed up, and the obvious fact that there is absolutely nothing factual or supernatural about any of it, Scientology still exists and has followers. If Scientology, a religion less than seventy years old, cannot be liquidated by the clear and obvious truth of the falsity of its dogma and doctrine, there is little hope for the disintegration of religions with over a thousand years head start.

  11. Johnny Vector says

    lorn:

    If Scientology, a religion less than seventy years old, cannot be liquidated by the clear and obvious truth of the falsity of its dogma and doctrine, there is little hope for the disintegration of religions with over a thousand years head start.

    And yet it [the percentage of people identifying as non-religious] moves.

  12. says

    Independent scholarship in the fields of archeology and other areas have found scant evidence to support the early and foundational stories of Abraham, Moses, the exodus, and the like.

    Does this mean Edith Hamilton’s classic 1942 book Mythology will get an update with a chapter on christian mythology? Or will fanatics be up in arms and try to ban it?

    Frauds who try to “prove” the old testament is true (e.g. Oded Golan, “noah’s ark” peddlars) will continue to appear long into the future as long as their are gullible people willing to give them fame and money. Many people get into religion because it’s an easy path to power, money, social status and sex, not because they are true believers.

  13. lorn says

    Johnny Vector @ 14:
    “And yet it [the percentage of people identifying as non-religious] moves.”

    While that is indeed a hopeful sign, at this rate religions will surely evaporate … in twenty thousand years or so. less hopeful is that it may not just be a numbers game. There is a nonzero chance Ted Cruz, a seven mountains dominionist, with a fervent, but seldom discussed, desire to reform this nation as a theocracy, may become president. What happens when a person who whole heartedly believes in Armageddon and the need for it to come to pass to bring a second coming of God, and thus paradise for all Christians, gets within arms reach of the nuclear launch codes?

    Over the last twenty years or so the evangelical movements have made a point of regularly advocating that Christian warriors should favor a live in the military. I don’t know what the statistics look like now but a few years back it was noted that army specials forces were mainly white men with strong evangelical Christian affiliations.

    Dominionism specifically calls for Christians to take control and make this nation Christina in thought, word and deed … presumably even if it means dragging the heathen masses into church and down onto their knees by force of laws that have been harmonized with established Christina doctrine.

  14. anat says

    Re: Finkelstein – See this oldish bit:

    “I am a great believer in a total separation between tradition and research. I myself have a warm spot in my heart for the Bible and its splendid stories. During our Pesach seder, my two girls, who are 11 and 7, didn’t hear a word about the fact that there was no exodus from Egypt. When they are 25, we will tell them a different story. Belief, tradition and research are three parallel lines that can exist simultaneously. I don’t see that as a gross contradiction.”

    That is not my attitude. I don’t mind telling a child a simplified explanation of anything, whether history or science (any explanation is always a simplification, the difference is of a degree), but I never presented to my child anything I knew or believed not to be true as factual. I can always say ‘this group of people believes X’.

  15. says

    During our Pesach seder, my two girls, who are 11 and 7, didn’t hear a word about the fact that there was no exodus from Egypt. When they are 25, we will tell them a different story.

    As someone who woke up around age 40 and discovered that he had been heavily propagandized by his school system as a child, and by the US’ media and government as an adult, I do not approve of lying to children.

    There are some myths I was raised without; religion being one of them. It didn’t harm me that I learned that the ancient gods of Rome were as bogus as the ancient gods of the Norse and the Jews and the Egyptians. I also grew up with an awareness that there was no Santa Claus.

    What I didn’t grow up with was an awareness that the US is built on genocide and slavery, yet remains a bunch of brutally violent self-congratulatory assholes. If I had grown up with that awareness I might have devoted my life to politics instead of being a good little slave of capitalism. Oh. Maybe that’s why I grew up with those lies?

    You know what someone needs to do? Someone needs to write a children’s version of Zinn’s “A people’s history” — perhaps call it “A children’s history…” If someone wants to do this I’d fucking help fund it and fucking help fund giving copies away outside schoolyards in Texas and Washington DC.

  16. says

    When they are 25, we will tell them a different story

    Oh: “Yeah, right.”
    Too many times I have heard that, and then someday never comes because it’s easier to let the lie stand. Because the people telling the lie in the first place are too chickenshit to handle the truth, there will never come a time when they are suddenly honest and courageous.

  17. anat says

    Well, in this case, all Finkelstein’s kids need to do is read their dad’s books, which are easily available.

  18. anat says

    What I find cool about studying the Hebrew Bible in the context of archaeology and preserved written records of past cultures is that we can slowly work out how the stories developed. Who told the older version when and why? Who created later versions, why the need for change? Remnants of older versions are there, if you know how to look for them.

    For instance the story of Jacob traveling to Laban in Aram to escape the wrath of his brother and to find a wife, then returning and settling in the area of Shechem establishes in detail the border between Israel and Aram. So it must have originated at a time when that border was indeed in that particular place, before the expansion of Israelite territory to the Gilead under the Omrides in the 9th century BCE. Also, the fact that those stories place Jacob in Bethel and Shechem but make no mention of Shiloh mean they originated after the destruction of Shiloh (dated to the late 11th century BCE) and before the destruction of Shechem in the 10th century BCE (though the entire Joseph story is much later).

    For the Exodus, once you get rid of a belief that some version of it was historical, to understand how the story was constructed I recommend the work of Thomas Römer. He shows that a belief in Egyptian origin but without slavery, plagues, magical sea crossings etc existed in the 8th century BCE and is hinted by Hosea. The wording that describes the slavery in Egypt uses Assyrian terminology. Basically, the unnamed Pharaohs of the exodus are stand-ins for Assyrian kings who enslaved war captives from conquered lands. Then the story got a rework after the Babylonian exile and the return from there, with the establishment of the priesthood of the second temple (which required inventing the character of Aaron).

  19. mithrandir says

    You know, I wouldn’t have so much of a problem with the ancient Israelites making up a fictional story to justify their claim to the land between the Jordan and the Red Sea, if it weren’t for the fact that their modern counterparts are still doing it, and using the exact same stories even.

  20. Nick Gotts says

    I figured that the Exodus story was a good one for exploitation at the time. A bandit named Joshua was sitting in the hills above Canaan, trying to come up with some good invasion propaganda. He makes up a story about capture, Egypt, exodus and forty years, and suddenly he and his friends are the rightful owners. – menyambal@12

    Except that Joshua is as mythical as Moses (see the Finkelstein and Silberman book already cited).

    You know, I wouldn’t have so much of a problem with the ancient Israelites making up a fictional story to justify their claim to the land between the Jordan and the Red Sea, if it weren’t for the fact that their modern counterparts are still doing it, and using the exact same stories even. – mithrandir@22

    The oddest aspect of this is that the fictional story convicts the ancient Israelites of an entirely fictional genocide!

  21. lorn says

    Don’t for a second think that the Christian/Jewish communities are the only ones creating myths justifying their desires and actions. Every group is doing the exact same thing.

    It also helps to remember that most of these myths, particularly the more compelling ones, are rooted not in victory and triumph, but rather in defeat and marginalization. The story of the Jews in their own narrative was a counterbalance to being a landless, scattered, oppressed people. It is a classic story of previous glory betrayed and destroyed, forced to live in exile.

    ISIS is myth-making when it cites the wonders of the caliphate and how they will rebuild.

    The secessionist states of the US have a similar myth about a beautiful south that prospered and was whole and just, until it was betrayed. The standard Lost Cause narrative. And how they will rebuild.

    No doubt the Palestinians have their own mythology being constructed about how it all was just and good before the colonial powers and Jews came and took their land. Wondrous people living idyllic lives set upon by evil people set free by capricious Gods. A noble people attacked from without and betrayed from within. And how they will rebuild.

    Which isn’t to say that there are not real issues and real people who have done great and terrible things. But it is remarkable what goes into the mythology and what does not. It makes sense if you remember that the mythology is not history, it is not a impartial accounting. It is the story a particular society or group feels it need to tell itself to maintain its identity.

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