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An enormous amount of information in the Bible has been borne out by archeology.
by Rabbi Ken Spiro
It’s generally assumed that people have always recorded and studied history, but that’s not true. As a matter of fact, if you go back more than a couple of thousand years, you’ll find people had no interest in history. The first historian in the Western World is usually considered to be Herodotus, a Greek who lived in the 5th century BCE, who has been given the title, “Father of History.” Columbia University historian, Joseph Yerushalmi, author of an excellent, highly-praised book called Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, says that “If Herodotus was the father of history, the fathers of meaning in history were the Jews.”1 This is a profound idea. In reality Jews were recording history long before Herodotus, but while Herodotus might have recorded events, the Jews looked at the deeper
Yerushalmi, Joseph, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982, p. 8.
it focuses on the basic information that we need to know to understand reality. and yet the Bible doesn’t tell us anything about him as a child or as a young adult – we pick up his story when he is already an old man. It is interested only in history as a means of teaching us the important lessons of life – it’s a book of theology. According to this view.700 years ago.300 years. Therefore. However. Leviticus. a philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment attacked this traditional view. As noted in the previous class. and it sets forth the Jewish worldview first and foremost. How Accurate is the Bible? For thousands of years humanity accepted the traditional Jewish view as to the authorship of the Bible. Numbers and Deuteronomy) were dictated by God to Moses during the 40 years the Jews wandered in the desert after their flight from Egyptian bondage. when Abraham first appears in the Book of Genesis. and it is takes place some 3. the great figures of the Bible 2 We do get details of Abraham’s life as a young man in another Jewish text known as the Midrash. and that deeper meaning can be found most importantly and most significantly within the stories of the Bible itself. According to this view. It is the story of Abraham. The first of these stories that we will examine in this course pre-dates Herodotus by about 1. Now don’t make the mistake of thinking the Bible is a history book even though it does contain history within it. Exodus. Enlightenment scholars created what they claimed was a more “rational” approach to the issue of authorship of the Bible. He’s one of the most significant figures in Jewish history. The basic theme of this modern theory (called Higher Biblical Criticism) was that the Five Books of Moses were primarily a collection of myths and folklore. he is already 75 years old. 2 . during the 18th century.meaning behind the events. passed down orally for generations and eventually written down at a later point in history.2 This is because the Bible is not concerned with giving us all the details of Abraham’s life. the Five Books of Moses (Genesis.
3 Although the topic of authorship of the Bible is beyond the scope of this course. the one source of possible hard evidence could come from comparing the biblical text to the archaeological remains of the period.(Abraham. So what does archaeology have to say about the accuracy of the Bible? The definition of archeology is “the discovery and interpretation of the physical remains of previous civilizations and peoples. Archeology is not a hard science. Jacob and Moses) were folk heroes who probably never existed. the subjectivity of the archaeologist can play a huge role in the conclusion he or she draws. or a chunk of a building. and the events described in the text were at best folklore and at worst complete fantasy. and even written documents are open to interpretation. In archaeology.” Note that within the very definition of archeology is the word “interpretation. So when people make definitive statements about what archeology does or doesn’t say. 3 . you have to be very careful. Of course. 3 It is a quest steeped in vociferous debate. Isaac. While the Enlightenment’s theories of authorship were largely based on debatable textual analysis and speculation. The find has no label on it. and politics have now also entered the fray. and the archeological quest continues. When archeologists find a chiseled stone. in the 18th century archeology was in its infancy. unless it’s a written document. Archaeological support for the traditional view point would clearly strengthen the Jewish people’s ancient historical claim to the Land of Israel while the opposite evidence would clearly weaken their case. they try to decide what it means – often they disagree. then it should be supported by archaeological finds. because the archeologists’ bias affects how they interpret the information. If the traditional view was correct. a shard of a vessel. it is definitely worth a little time to discuss the historical accuracy of the text. It is not like math where one plus one clearly equals two. It took a while to unearth any evidence.” How one archeologist interprets the meaning of a particular find can be very different from how another archeologist interprets the meaning of the same find.
Gezer. 3:187-193. for example. or manuscripts that describe the events recorded in the Book of Genesis. figurines and even camel-hair rope – that camels were clearly domesticated long before Abraham. 1992.4 There is. Archaeology of the Land of the Bible.” Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. a huge amount of indirect or circumstantial evidence – names. Exodus: The Egyptian Evidence. while camels were not domesticated until much later. But the early events exist more or less in a historical vacuum and. Lachish and even Jerusalem). for example. 42:47-54 1997. Archeology doesn’t definitively prove the Bible. business contracts. there are no documents that specifically mention Abraham.” Middle East Archaeological Society Bulletin. Joseph P. marriage contracts. there is excellent direct evidence. In fact. But this is not the case. It is safe to say that at least 90% remains to be unearthed..6 4 That is. However. dozens and dozens of sites remain totally unexplored and even the sites which have been excavated (for example.5 Another point to consider is how little has actually been excavated to date. “Late Bronze Age Camel Petroglyphs in the Wadi Nasib. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns Pulishing. migratory patterns. because the Bible relates that Abraham owned camels. from south to north and found no evidence to support the Bible. New York: Doubleday. written records of other empires. Lesko. July 1944. Ernest (editors). then we could make a more definitive statement about what the archaeological record supports. unfortunately. “Abraham’s Camels. The fact that we haven’t found Abraham’s camel saddle doesn’t mean Abraham didn’t have a camel or a saddle. Sinai. That is as far as the early books of the Bible are concerned. for years skeptics have confidently asserted that the Bible’s origins could not be as Judaism has maintained.As far as the early books of the Bible are concerned. and Frerichs.apologeticspress. Until today. have only been partially excavated. Keep in mind that the same thing that applies in a court of law applies to archeology: Lack of evidence is no evidence of lack. Amihai. Megiddo. etc. it has since been archeologically proven – through finds of drawings. Randall W. 1997 6 4 . and www. but once we get to later books. places. 5 Speaking of camels. also in an archeological vacuum.org/articles/1781 For further reading see: Mazar. Hazor. Free. the more we find. like the Book of Kings. there is little direct archeological evidence for the characters described there.. See Younker. the more we see that there’s a tremendous amount of historicity in the text. though there is quite a bit of evidence when we get to the time of King David and the other kings of Israel. Leonard. Had archaeologists excavated the entire Land of Israel. however. but it certainly doesn’t discredit it.
The Bible should be used cautiously and critically. first and foremost. And if we understand that the reason why we’re learning history is to discover these patterns – so that we won’t repeat them – then we have to pay extra special attention to what is going on in the Bible. the Bible is not a book of history. I believe it is impossible to explore Israel’s origins without the Bible. Nov/Dec. “The Exodus: Egyptian Analogies” and the essay by Frank Yurco. The Bible is. yet it contains quite a bit of information about ancient history and culture. waiting to be unearthed and exposed by archaeological fieldwork and critical mindwork. At the same time. 5 .In summary. “Save us from Postmodern Malarky” by William Dever. But. March/April 2000. a book of teachings. Professor Adam Zartal. again and again. summed it up thus: After years of research.7 (including the essay by Abraham Malamat. and this information is more or less borne out by archeology. and it is the ideal way to learn the patterns of history. we have seen the historical value of the Bible. Sept/Oct. September/October 1991. “Exodus Itinerary Confirmed by Egyptian Evidence” by Charles Krahmalkov. 7 Biblical Archeology Review. 1994. 1994. the research should be as objective as possible. “Merneptah’s Cananite Campaigns and Israel’s Origins”). Also see the following articles in the journal Biblical Archeology Review: “The House of David and the House of the Deconstructionists” by Anson Rainey. Again and again. we have seen that an accurate memory has been preserved in its transmuted narratives. chairman of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Haifa.
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