False Testament: Archaeology Refutes the Bible's Claim to History. (Criticism).
Author: Daniel Lazare
Issue: March, 2002
Not long ago, archaeologists could agree that the Old Testament, for all its embellishments and contradictions, contained a kernel of truth. Obviously, Moses had not parted the Red Sea or turned his staff into a snake, but 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.
That is no longer the case. In the last quarter century or so, archaeologists have seen one settled assumption after another concerning who the ancient Israelites were and where they came from proved false. Rather than a band of invaders who fought their way into the Holy Land, the Israelites are now thought to have been an 'indigenous culture that developed west of the Jordan River around 1200 B.C. Abraham, Isaac, and the other patriarchs appear to have been spliced together out of various pieces of local lore.
The Davidic Empire, which archaeologists once thought as incontrovertible as the Roman, is now seen as an invention of Jerusalem-based priests in the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. who were eager to burnish their national history. The religion we call Judaism does not reach well back into the second millennium B.C. but appears to be, at most, a product of the mid-first.
Jewish monotheism, the sole and exclusive worship of an ancient Semitic god known as Yahweh, did not fully coalesce until the period between the Assyrian conquest of the northern Jewish kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. and the Babylonian conquest of the southern kingdom of Judah in 586.
Judaism appears to have been the product not of some dark and nebulous period of early history but of a more modern age of big-power politics in which every nation aspired to the imperial greatness of a Babylon or an Egypt. Judah, the sole remaining Jewish outpost by the late eighth century B.C., was a small, out-of-the-way kingdom with little in the way of military or financial clout. Yet at some point its priests and rulers seem to have been seized with the idea that their national deity, now deemed to be nothing less than the king of the universe, was about to transform them into a great power. They set about creating an imperial past commensurate with such an empire, one that had the southern heroes of David and Solomon conquering the northern kingdom and making rival kings tremble throughout the known world. From a "henotheistic" cult in which Yahweh was worshiped as the chief god among many, they refashioned the national religion so that henceforth Yahweh would be worshiped to the exclusion of all other deities. One law, that of Yahweh, would now reign supreme
Not only is there no evidence that any such figure as Abraham ever lived but archaeologists believe that there is no way such a figure could have lived given what we now know about ancient Israelite origins.
A growing volume of evidence concerning Egyptian border defenses, desert sites where the fleeing Israelites supposedly camped, etc., indicates that the flight from Egypt did not occur in the thirteenth century before Christ; it never occurred at all. Although Johnson writes that the story of Moses had to be true because it "was beyond the power of the human mind to invent," we now know that Moses was no more historically real than Abraham before him. Although Johnson adds that Joshua, Moses's lieutenant, "began and to a great extent completed the conquest of Canaan," the Old Testament account of that conquest turns out to be fictional as well
archaeologists believe that David was not a mighty potentate whose power was felt from the Nile to the Euphrates but rather a freebooter who carved out what was at most a small duchy in the southern highlands around Jerusalem and Hebron. Indeed, the chief disagreement among scholars nowadays is between those who hold that David was a petty hilltop chieftain whose writ extended no more than a few miles in any direction and a small but vociferous band of "biblical minimalists" who maintain that he never existed at all.
By the late nineteenth century members of this school had arrived at the conclusion that the first five books of the Old Testament--variously known as the Five Books of Moses, the Torah, or the Pentateuch--were not written by Moses himself, as tradition would have it. Rather, they were largely products of a "post-exilic period" in which Jewish scribes, newly released from captivity in Babylon, set about putting a jumbled collection of ancient writings into some sort of coherent order. The Higher Criticism did not topple the Old Testament as a whole, but it did conclude that Abraham, Isaac, and the other tribal founders depicted in the Book of Genesis were no more real than the heroes of Greek or Norse mythology.
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
This was not all. As Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University, and Neil Asher Silberman, a journalist who specializes in biblical and religious subjects, point out in their recent book, The Bible Unearthed, the patriarchal tales make frequent mention of camel caravans. When, for example, Abraham sent one of his servants to look for a wife for Abraham's son, Isaac, Genesis 24 says that the emissary "took ten of his master's camels and left, taking with him all kinds of good things from his master." Yet analysis of ancient animal bones confirms that camels were not widely used for transport in the region until well after 1000 B.C. Genesis 26 tells of Isaac seeking help from a certain "Abimelech, king of the Philistines." Yet archaeological research has confirmed that the Philistines were not a presence in the area until after 1200 B.C. The wealth of detail concerning people, goods, and cities that makes the patriarchal tales so vivid and lifelike, archaeologists discovered, were reflective of a period long after the one that Albright had pinpointed. They were reflective of the mid-first millennium, not the early second.
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.
Thus there was no migration from Mesopotamia, no sojourn in Egypt, and no exodus. There was no conquest upon the Israelites' return and, for that matter, no peaceful infiltration
Finkelstein and Silberman concluded that Judah and Israel had never existed under the same roof. The Israelite culture that had taken shape in the central hill country around 1200 B.C. had evolved into two distinct kingdoms from the start. Whereas Judah remained weak and isolated, Israel did in fact develop into an important regional power beginning around 900 B.C. It was as strong and rich as David and Solomon's kingdom had supposedly been a century earlier, yet it was not the sort of state of which the Jewish priesthood approved. The reason had to do with the nature of the northern kingdom's expansion. As Israel grew, various foreign cultures came under its sway, cultures that sacrificed to gods other than Yahweh. Pluralism became the order of the day: the northern kings could manage such a diverse empire only by allowing these cultures to worship their own gods in return for their continued loyalty. The result was a policy of religious syncretism, a theological pastiche in which the cult of Yahweh coexisted alongside those of other Semitic deities.
When the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians, the Jewish priesthood concluded not that Israel had played its cards badly in the game of international politics but that by tolerating other cults it had given grave offense to the only god that mattered. Joining ,a stream of refugees to the south, the priests swelled the ranks of an influential political party dedicated to the proposition that the only way for Judah to avoid a similar fate was to cleanse itself of all rival beliefs and devote itself exclusively to Yahweh.
The monotheistic movement reached a climax in the late seventh century B.C. when a certain King Josiah took the throne and gave the go-ahead for a long-awaited purge. Storming through the countryside, Josiah and his Yahwist supporters destroyed rival shrines, slaughtered alien priests, defiled their altars, and ensured that henceforth even Jewish sacrifice take place exclusively in Jerusalem, where the priests could exercise tight control. The result, the priests and scribes believed, was a national renaissance that would soon lead to the liberation of the north and a similar cleansing there as well.
Does this mean that monotheism was nothing more than a con, a ruse cooked up by ambitious priests in order to fool a gullible population?
How could Moses prohibit murder and then, in Numbers 31, fly into a rage because a returning Israelite war party has slaughtered only the adult male Midianites? ("Now kill all the boys," he tells them when he calms down. "And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.") Was murder a crime only when it involved members of the in-group? Or was it a crime when it involved human beings in general, regardless of nationality
Indeed, the chief disagreement among scholars nowadays is between those who hold that David was a petty hilltop chieftain whose writ extended no more than a few miles in any direction and a small but vociferous band of "biblical minimalists" who maintain that he never existed at all.