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.