2. Israel’s Origins

Synopsis

The most distilled summary statement I can manage is that Judaism appears to have collapsed on its most foundational assertions. By every examination researchers can undertake, their early history appears to have been rather fancifully concocted. From the creation of the world, to the covenant with Abraham, the Egyptian bondage, the deliverance of the Great Exodus, the giving of the Law, the Mosaic covenant, the wanderings in the wilderness, and through to the conquest of Canaan – the claimed histories in these accounts have been flatly disconfirmed by protracted Israeli and American investigations [11, 17].

More astonishing perhaps is that this situation has been debated for some time, and after protracted debates and many attempts to defend the text, it has been accepted by the strong majority of scholars working in the field [11]. It has been admitted publicly by leading conservative Rabbis [51]. The problem has been conceded by leading evangelical scholars [14]. The Pentateuchal narratives are not errant by mere exaggeration, conveying amplified versions of real events. They appear, in many cases, simply to describe non-events, whole-cloth fabrications.

The Jewish texts do become more historically accurate later on, somewhere during the monarchical period, where events are described with an approximate accuracy and bias normative for other ancient records [11].

But the narratives describing the birth of Israel and the source of the Law stand on distressingly equal footing with – I hesitate to say – the Book of Mormon. This comparison, screeching as it does like a bow drawn over ill-tuned strings, sounds to my ear even now like a mere liberal screed. But this comparison presents a question not of dogma or worldview affirmation. It comes to questions of historical fact, which we can objectively evaluate.

Past Views

I should immediately affirm my past views. I have always been entirely comfortable with the essential historicity of the Pentateuch narratives, affirming them in both their theology and their miraculous content.

For 2-3 millennia, the people of Israel and the Christian church have affirmed the truth of the Pentateuch [10, 11]. That truth was affirmed on faith – faith in God as their meta-author, in the credibility of Moses as the penman, and on the sustained traditions of God’s chosen people of Israel. This faith filled a vacuum of evidential support for the textual claims… for those millennia, there never was any bank of evidences to corroborate the claims.  The texts were true because God wrote them; we knew God wrote them because the texts claimed to be his words. The bone fides that Israel was God’s people came from the mighty works God had done to demonstrate his power – particularly the mighty works performed during the Exodus.

However, we must acknowledge that there never was evidence of those deeds, except what Israel told us happened. We have no record of those events from anyone else. Israel was chosen; great deeds were done to validate that claim; and Israel was the only source to say so. The proposition and corroboration all came from the same singular source. I have long conceded this palpable circularity on the grounds that it was in some respects warrantable. You must have a basis assumption, a presuppositional framework for a worldview. But it is important to realize that the only thing to be done was to take them at their word.

The great Church fathers, like Paul and Augustine and Luther and Calvin, faced an unbridgeable gulf that separated the primordial from the present. For millennia, the scribal lamp provided the singular illumination and thread back through the shrouding mists. Scrawling hands, generation upon another, reached over the distant horizon to tell the tale of what was before. The hands were trusted. The papyral chain of scribes, reaching back to Moses himself, was trusted. It was on trust that the accounts were taken to be true, and it was the only information that we had.

Not Middle Earth

The situation has changed: we no longer speak our faith claims into a vacuum. Illumination, it may be noted (then underlined, then encircled), has improved somewhat in the preceding two centuries. It is possible at present to look back to the basement of Jewish history, just as is done with the cultures of the Egyptians, the Aztecs, the Vikings, the Greeks, the Mesopotamians, etc. The sands of time no longer insulate the early Jewish histories from investigation, or evaluation.

The scribal lamps have now been supplemented by searing banks of incandescents and halogens, as archaeologists and historians have unearthed endless collections of artifacts and data from the lands of Canaan. Since Israel’s reclamation of their lands in 1948, and particularly the Six Day War with Syria in 1967, Israeli and American archaeologists have finally had unmitigated access to the ancestral lands of Canaan [17]. At the confluence of three tributary streams, a forceful current of investigation coalesced; geographic availability was coupled with political blessing and modern investigational capabilities. A great project was undertaken by preeminent Israeli archaeologists to find Israel’s “title deeds” to their ancient lands – and to refute other contemporary claimants [22]. The searing investigator’s lamp is now held by Israeli hands. But they found instead something for which they had not been looking.

Concessions

It was on Passover 2001 that renown conservative Rabbi David Wolpe stood before his thousands-strong congregation and informed them of the regrettable facts [51]:

“Three years ago on Passover, I explained to my congregation that according to archeologists, there was no reliable evidence that the Exodus took place—and that it almost certainly did not take place the way the Bible recounts it. Finally, I emphasized: It didn’t matter.”

~ Rabbi David Wolpe, Leader in the Conservative Movement in Judaism, 2004

He admitted this not based on protests of the supernatural or the fantastic, but due to the work of Israeli archaeologists and historians. This was a courageous public stand for Wolpe to risk, but the facts he cited represented the consensus of Israeli and American archaeologists. Here I must cite Israel Finkelstein, preeminent Israeli archaeologist who has been a leading figure in the field [17] (highly recommended reading as a starting point on the topic):

…most of the Israelites did not come from outside Canaan— they emerged from within it. There was no mass Exodus from Egypt. There was no violent conquest of Canaan. Most of the people who formed early Israel were local people…The early Israelites were— irony of ironies— themselves originally Canaanites…

~ Israel Finkelstein, The Bible Unearthed

Scholars in the field of ancient Israeli archaeology, seeking to validate in many cases their own cultural history, had watched the evidences for the historical accuracy of the Old Testament gradually form fissures and cracks, in many places crumbling entirely [11, 17]. The first six books of the Bible are now considered of very low historical quality when compared against the artifacted history of both Israel and of the broader region [11].

The historical value increases substantially as one moves to the monarchical period and the exile [11]. Still, the historical content in the monarchical narratives finds itself ensconced in unfortunate layers of embellishment, late editorial modifications, and indeed, outright propagandistic misrepresentations [11, 14, 15, 17]. It should be noted that this by no means leaves the Jewish histories as particularly egregious; rather, it makes them fairly  normal by ancient standards.

High Points

Specifics pending, there are a few salient points which may be summarized at the outset:

  • Creation accounts: natural history poses significant problems for their historical claims, whether cosmological or anthropological [2, 21, 24].
  • Flood accounts: again, natural history indicates that such an event simply has not happened [*].
  • Patriarchal narratives: archaeology demonstrates substantial anachronisms, and the accounts reflect a view of the world that does not fit the patriarchal period [17].
  • Captivity: archaeology and Egyptian records indicate that Israel was actually never enslaved in Egypt to begin with; Israel appears to have possibly adopted a similar regional memory that actually pertained to another people group altogether [11, 17].
  • Exodus: comprehensive silence reigns regarding any supporting evidences for the Exodus event; all evidence collected through archaeology and textual records excludes the possibility that a large people group ever migrated out of Egypt during the period [11, 17, 51].
  • Conquest of Canaan: the ruins of many ‘conquered’ cities in Canaan do exist, yet appear to have been the conquests of other nations; the population of the region was very small and indicates that no great influx of immigrant conquerors ever took place [17].
  • Origins of Israel: Israel does not appear to have immigrated to Canaan from anywhere. They appear to simply have been a home-grown people group, gradually emerging as from the native Canaanite population in an organic process [11, 17, 51].

These purported problems did not find a welcome foothold with me. As already stated, I have pressed an obsessive and driving march through protracted inquiry. Yet the basic points sketched above now stand as consensus among scholars in the field. Many objected, and many attempted to disprove the picture which grew from the sustained interrogation of the land (more on this below). Yet in principle, special pleading is not to be admitted – if any documents should stand without auxiliary propping, these should.

Corroboration

Finkelstein, previously cited, considers a great deal of the Old Testament to be of low historical quality, including the monarchical period [17]. To balance his statements, I will cite one of his rivals in the field, William Dever, who argues from a more conservative view that a great deal of Kings can be seen as viable historical material [11]. Despite rigorous opposition from one wing to another, they find consensus about the prehistory period of Israel (recommended reading, following Finkelstein):

Thus a “patriarchal era,” an “exodus from Egypt,” and a pan-military “conquest of Palestine,” as portrayed in the biblical narratives, have all now been shown to be essentially nonhistorical, “historicized fiction” at best. And the proof has come… from “secular” archaeologists, Israeli and American, who have no theological axes to grind…

~ William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel

It should be underscored that the difficulty is not the plausibility of the miraculous, though as an evangelical, this was the principal objection with which I was most familiar. Rather, the historical problem for the accounts is three-fold: (1) no evidence of enslavement in Egypt despite records of other people groups during the period, (2) evidence against ruinous calamity striking Egypt, (3) evidence against any large migration of people [17]. The historical evidence indicates that there never was an Exodus, irrespective of whether it occurred by natural or supernatural means. A final point is that (4) there are substantial problems with the conquest narrative in that the conquered cities were often found to have been defeated by other cultures or not to have been inhabited as described [17]:

Sites mentioned in the Exodus narrative are real… Unfortunately for those seeking a historical Exodus, they were unoccupied precisely at the time they reportedly played a role in the events of the wandering of the children of Israel in the wilderness.

~ Israel Finkelstein, The Bible Unearthed

Though the investigations and debates have been fervent among researchers for the past 60 years, the public has remained largely in the dark about the findings. But the evidences are compelling, and to honest researchers they are demanding of acceptance. As such, the fictional nature of Israel’s origins in the Bible has been conceded throughout the broader scholarly community, wringing concessions across the board [11]:

…a number of American archaeologists of conservative religious background, who undertook archaeological research no doubt hoping to be able to defend “invasion theories” like those of the book of Joshua, must have found the overwhelming evidence of the “indigenous origins” of most early Israelites hard to accept. But one and all they did so.

~ William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel

The historical status of the Old Testament accounts may be summarized: If a red bookmark is placed at the beginning of Judges, the accounts to the left appear to be heavily or entirely fictional, while those to the right have greater historical plausibility.

Sources

The sources by which this information has been conveyed may be summarized: the first source I found to acknowledge the serious problems of historical accuracy came from an evangelical Christian scholar. Subsequent corroborating voices have come from Israeli archaeologists, American archaeologists, Jewish rabbis, atheists, etc. The chorus crosses all ideological lines.

Next: [3] Foundational Scriptures >>

4/5/2013

© Copyright 2013

Comments

  1. Awesome post. I dealt with the inventive problem of the Pentateuch, too. The part that truly stands out is this stuff has been known for well over 30 years, its undeniable, and as even rabbis have now come out and admitted the historical farce then how on earth has this failed to penetrate into the public domain?

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  2. You seem to have spent so much time on this area. As for me, after loosing faith, I have concentrated mainly on the core figure of the religious narrative, god, and the more I look, I find there is no reason why anyone should believe there is a god.
    Great post and I think I should read the Bible Unearthed, I have a copy somewhere.

    Like

  3. nonameyet says:

    Hi Jericho,

    I’m curious what you make of this article, Did the Exodus Never Happen?, from Christianity Today, Sept. 7, 1998.

    (I’m using the web archive URL b/c the current one on CT’s website only shows the first several paragraphs as a “free preview”.)

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    • I’ve read the Miller article, but its been a while.

      Probably more important, I’ve read K.A. Kitchen’s entire tome on the subject, which was incredibly detailed. Detailed enough, I think, to leave people like Miller and others with a sense that Kitchens’ work changes the bottom line. It doesn’t.

      Kitchen doesn’t dispute the really, really important broad land survey and assembly of population levels that Israel Finkelstein did. This was very key, because it indicated that Israel’s population didn’t hit anything like a million people until centuries after the supposed Exodus. That is – no big crowds ever showed up. No arrival, no Exodus.

      Kitchen doesn’t dispute this. He argues that there is some evidence for a small population increase around the right time, so perhaps a small group made their way there. Then he argues that for 3 millennia, the numbers used to describe the size of the Exodus in the text have been mistranslated (surprise!). If we translate them correctly, the proper size of the Exodus isn’t ~2 million; its more like 10 to 20 thousand. That’s less than 1 percent. Oops.

      And a micro-Exodus like that could be argued from the data per Finkelstein.

      There are a lot of minutiae that are argued… was it all made up? Or was there a grain of truth at the bottom in a much more modest tale?

      I think that the rub comes to this: Egypt was not left in ruin, one way or the other. Egyptologists know full well that there simply was never a major collapse or down-tick in Egyptian power around that time, which there would have been if their food and water supply were destroyed, their army defeated, a major segment of their population dead, and more than half of the population got up and left, taking the booty with them. I consider reality: what if something like that happened to the US? We wouldn’t be a superpower anymore, and everyone’s history books would reflect that quite well, whether we wanted to cover it all up or not.

      Kitchen deals with this by saying essentially that the grandeur of the Exodus account was exaggerated per standard practice of the day. That is, everybody wrote that way. Same for the invasion and conquest. The plagues all had naturalistic explanations, though they were indeed tipped off by God.

      In short, it was a small group of people who left Egypt much as they found it with nothing more than some bad-luck sorts of minor natural disasters that they took credit for, prior to showing up and basically just integrating with the locals apart from any really major conquest of unimpeded victory.

      If people want to defend that Exodus, and therefore make the claim that the Bible is true, they are welcome to do so I guess. But I personally think its all “much ado about nothing.” Kitchen defends a hill that most Christians wouldn’t recognize, if they really understood what he was saying. For me, the kernel of truth at the center of the tale – if there is one – is rather small.

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      • nonameyet says:

        Thanks for the thorough response. 🙂

        Like

      • For me, the kernel of truth at the center of the tale – if there is one – is rather small.

        I wonder if the Merneptah Stele may play a role in figuring that out. It seems to me that it may stand against this point from your page:

        Rather, the historical problem for the accounts is three-fold: (1) no evidence of enslavement in Egypt despite records of other people groups during the period…

        Are you familiar? Thoughts?

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        • Oh yes, it’s discussed in every archaeology book that I’ve consulted to this point. I’ll get back on this tomorrow or so.

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          • I read somewhere there was a suspicion the Merneptah Stele had been incorrectly translated and a new evaluation had been put forward. (?)

            Irrespective what the correct reading is, the ”Promised Land” was held by the Egyptians in any case.

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  4. You have made some decent points there. I looked on the web for more info
    about the issue and found most individuals will go along
    with your views on this web site.

    Like

    • Hi NextPage,

      Yeah, its sad, but it does appear to be true. Lot of good sources on this, and I’ve tried to cover the gamut. Finkelstein, Dever, Kitchen, and others. I really couldn’t believe it myself when I first started turning over the rocks. What tipped me off at first was a Rabbi ducking the question of Exodus historicity in a debate. I thought, “What is going on here? Why didn’t he hammer back with all our evidence?”

      I strongly encourage others to dig in and keep digging, and not to take my word for anything. There are some additional links on the right hand pane, and of course in the Bibliography section.

      Like

  5. What I find mind blowing is when confronted with the fact that Jesus referenced characters from the Pentateuch, Moses for one, and the Law , most Christians simply cannot join the dots regarding Jesus ( the Creator of the Universe..sic) quoting a fictitious character from a fictitious text.
    Some, unklee for one, have even moved the goalposts and stated Moses is not crucial to belief in the divinity of Jesus. What the hell!
    How does one bridge this chasm of theistic intransigence?

    Like

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  1. […] summary (Let the Stones Speak) is thorough and easy enough to follow.  Jericho Brisance’s summary is elegantly written, and shows a Christian wrestling with these realities.  Although there are […]

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