The Old Testament and the Ancient Near East: A Christian Historian’s View

As a historian, I am struck by how much of the Old Testament consists of historical narrative, over a third of the total (and it’s a big volume!).  On the other hand, I am also surprised at the lack of historical method (as distinct from the methods of textual scholarship or archaeology) applied to these biblical narratives.  It seems that most Old Testament scholars have concluded that there is nothing historical in the text to which historical methods might be applied.  Yet I wonder whether the experts have not too quickly pre-judged the matter (always a dangerous conclusion for a non-expert such as myself to come to).  Indeed, I find myself in the rather unenviable position of distrusting the experts, and this post is an attempt to explain one portion of why I think that is, and to suggest an alternate approach to the issue.

First, as always, some caveats.  I have read some Old Testament scholarship, but not extensively, and no doubt real experts will find innumerable gaps and glaring instances of ignorance in these impressions.  I beg them to ignore missteps and focus on whether my argument as a whole might be salvaged.  On the other hand, I do not suspect that biblical scholarship is a misguided enterprise in principle; that is, I am not committed to the view (popular among some anti-intellectual conservative Christians) that all biblical scholarship must necessarily be wrong.  But I do have serious reservations about the current state of biblical scholarship, what it assumes and the methods it employs, yet I hope for better in the future.

The ostensible reason for the rejection of the historicity of the Old Testament is the dramatic increase of extra-biblical evidence.  Before around 1800, the Old Testament was essentially the only available relic of ancient Near Eastern history, apart from the mysterious pyramids.  With the decipherment of hieroglyphics and cuneiform, and the exploration of ancient Near Eastern archaeology (such as the ruins of Nineveh), scholars increasingly had other evidence upon which to draw.  While initially this evidence was slotted easily enough into biblical paradigms, a general post-Enlightenment rejection of those paradigms (what Weber termed the “disenchantment of the world”) led scholars to formulate histories of the ancient Near East without reference to the narrative as contained in the Bible.  The result, for many scholars, is that there seems to be no room left for the story of Israelites in Egypt and Canaan as told by the Old Testament.

But my issue with this scholarship (at least those parts of Old Testament scholarship which I have read) is that the question is too quickly posed, “Does this extra-biblical evidence confirm or deny what the Bible says?”  I recall reading (to pick on one, somewhat old, example) of the excavations of Hazor by Yigael Yadin, and I was fascinated by what I found.  Yet the whole excavation was undertaken to adjudicate what Yadin regarded as the “contradiction” between Joshua 11:11 (in which Joshua captured Hazor, killed King Jabin and the city’s inhabitants, and burnt the city) and Judges 4:24 (in which Deborah and Barak defeated King Jabin of Hazor, but destroyed the kingdom only progressively, with no mention of a conflagration).  Since Yadin did not find a burn layer in the thirteenth century BCE (to which he dated the Israelite conquest of Canaan), but only back in the fifteenth century BCE, he concluded that the archaeology disproved the Joshua account and verified the Judges account.

Hrm.  So is the book of Joshua wrong?  Before we answer that question, let’s look more closely.  For Yadin’s conclusion (like those of his many imitators) to hold, there are at least two logical requirements.  It must be assumed, first, that the text in Joshua means what Yadin understood it to mean, that Hazor was entirely destroyed by fire and thenceforth uninhabited, and that this must have happened in the thirteenth century.  It must likewise be assumed that the archaeological evidence means what Yadin took it to mean: that the site investigated is in fact Joshua’s Hazor, that he correctly dated the various layers to the thirteenth or fifteenth century BCE, and that continuous occupation means continuity of population, in that the people inhabiting the place in a later period were the descendants of those who inhabited it earlier, so that any change had to be progressive.  In other words, Yadin did not in any way engage with the difficulties of interpretation.  If the biblical text does not mean what Yadin alleged, or if the archaeological evidence does not mean what Yadin alleged, then his assertion of a contradiction does not hold.

Perhaps an example from another, less contentious, field of inquiry may clarify the situation.  The French historian Lucien Febvre wrote a book, known to students of history as detailed, careful, and exhausting, on the subject of atheism in the sixteenth century.  You see, John Calvin and other authors of that period called various people (most notably including the satirist Rabelais) “atheists,” and in the twentieth century (when many more French people were glad to identify themselves as atheists) some sectors of society were eager to identify Rabelais among their non-spiritual predecessors.  They wanted to know more about how Rabelais and people like him had reached such an insight at so much earlier a period.  Yet Febvre’s research revealed that this was a misunderstanding: that Rabelais was certainly not an “atheist” in the twentieth-century meaning of the term.  Instead, calling someone an “atheist,” even if using the same words, meant something very different at that time.  To ask about sixteenth-century French atheism, then, was a question mal-posée (we might say a badly formulated question), because it presumed what was false, that atheism was always the same thing.

Similarly, I suspect that scholars, asking too quickly whether some extra-biblical evidence confirms or denies what the Bible says, is too often a question mal-posée.  It fails to grapple with the very real complexities of interpreting the Bible (and the range of different things that any verse might mean), as well as the difficulties of interpreting extra-biblical texts and archaeological evidence.  I can understand the desire to answer the question whether the Bible is wrong or not, as for many people in our society the possibility of errors in the Bible is a much more significant (and therefore interesting) question than whether a small city in Canaan was or was not burned in the thirteenth century BCE, and whether it was or was not inhabited thereafter.

But there is another approach, fully available to Old Testament scholars regardless of their religious convictions or irreligious convictions.  I too am a pre-modern historian, although not of the ancient Near East.  And as a historian of the pre-modern world, I know just how precious any source material can be.  I would not wish to “rule out” any sources prematurely.  Instead of starting with the question whether some extra-biblical evidence proves or disproves the Bible account, on the assumption that we already know what both mean, we can use multiple sources to clarify what others mean.  We can use extra-biblical evidence to refine our understanding of the biblical text, and we can also use biblical narratives to suggest ways of understanding extra-biblical evidence.  Having thus tried to clarify the range of possible meanings of both sets of evidence, we can then evaluate whether the two are in fact irreconcilable.  There will still be contradictions of course, and this should not surprise us, because humans are not scrupulously honest in every circumstance.  But we will have tried to understand, rather than presuming we already did.

(When there are contradictions with extra-biblical textual sources, of course, one need not presume that the Bible is the false version.  I recall seeing Sennacherib’s prism in the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, along with a translation of the text and the explanation that it shows that the biblical account is incorrect.  What struck me, however, is that both Sennacherib’s account and the biblical account mention Hezekiah’s tribute (2 Kings 18:14-16), and the Assyrian version does not mention whether the the emperor managed to capture Jerusalem or not.  Sennacherib’s own account could hardly be expected to advertise his failure.  As to whether Hezekiah’s tribute preceded the siege [as in 2 Kings] or followed it, as in Sennacherib’s version, both sides would have reason for structuring the narrative that way, so there is no historical reason for preferring one over the other.)

If we apply the method of comparing biblical and extra-biblical evidence, we might get some surprising results.  In Yadin’s case with Hazor, for example, we might realize that Joshua killing everyone he found in the city does not mean that the city ceased to be inhabited: refugees who had fled the city before the battle might have returned soon afterward, or new people might have occupied the city after its occupants were killed.  A replacement of people, as long as they maintained similar customs, would not be represented in the archaeological layer.  What about the fact that both Joshua and Judges speak of the same king, named Jabin?  Well, the kings share a name, but it was not at all uncommon in the ancient Near East for names to run in dynasties, and especially for a son to be named after his grandfather, so the King Jabin named in Judges may well have been a descendant of the Jabin killed by Joshua.  Yadin ignored the fact that Judges claims to be speaking of a period long after Joshua, and there is nothing in either text to require that they are speaking of the same king.

And what of the missing burn layer?  There is none in the layer identified by Yadin as the thirteenth century BCE, yet there was a burn layer back in the fifteenth century BCE, which incidentally is one of the proposed dates for the Exodus.  Perhaps, indeed, the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites took place where Hazor had a burn layer, with the burning of the city, but it was rebuilt by returning refugees or other settlers, and the later kings repeated the names of the earlier kings, so that by the days of Deborah and Barak it was again a major city of Canaanites, competing with the Israelites.  This reconstruction is by no means certain – I don’t propose it as “what really happened” – but it shows that Yadin’s archaeology neither proved nor disproved the Bible.  It is compatible with it, but does not require it.  This is often the case with ancient extra-biblical evidence.  But combining all the available sources will allow us to formulate more detailed hypotheses, whereas jumping to the “confirm or deny” alternative neglects the complexity of interpretation, whether biblical, archaeological, or other textual, and risks forcing a false dichotomy.


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