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Is the Old Testament historically reliable?

Is the Old Testament historically reliable?

Prof. Kenneth A. Kitchen is Personal and Brunner Professor Emeritus of Egyptology and Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Archaeology, Classics and Oriental Studies at the University of Liverpool. He has written several books including On the Reliability of the Old Testament.i

Today we inhabit a world flooded with an overwhelming mass of information in many fields, and an unparalleled range of opinions on everything. This includes loud denunciations of the Old Testament as very largely late fiction of very little historical value. No novelty! In 1753, Astruc tried to separate Moses' accounts in Genesis into parallel strips of text (‘J'ii and ‘E'iii - imaginary sources). At least he entitled his work honestly as ‘Conjectures...'. In 1805/6, with no independent evidence at all, De Wette speculated that in 621 BC the Hebrew priests fraudulently invented Deuteronomy (source ‘D'). Finally, in 1878 for his Prolegomena, Wellhausen set all the ‘Law' elements (‘D' and ‘P'iv) of the Bible's first five books (the Pentateuch) later than the imagined ‘J' and ‘E' narratives, giving a guesswork ‘evolutionary' reconstruction of ancient Hebrew literature (‘J'; then ‘E'; then ‘D'; and then ‘P'), religion (primitive folk-religion; then the prophets; then priestly rituals) and history (no patriarchs, very little ‘exodus', rudimentary monarchy/ies; sophistication only in and after the Babylonian exile). All these entire structures were, and remain, 100% hypothesis, with no supporting external data. Modern-day ‘minimalism' which dates the Old Testament only from around 400/300 BC, as mostly fiction, is merely the logical outcome of older attitudes. With variations, such ‘critical' dogmas are continually repeated in stark isolation from almost any use of external controls over their validity, unless the controls are bent to fit the theories, instead of correcting them; which is an invalid procedure.

But from around 1800 till the present, in today's ‘Middle East'v an entire world of the ancient Near East - the world also of the Bible - has been progressively unveiled. The systematic exploration of hundreds of sites, and the discovery and decipherment of thousands of texts covering 3,000 years, in some 20 ancient languages and over a dozen scripts, we owe to archaeologists, and to the labours of Assyriologists, Sumerologists, Egyptologists, Hittitologists, and other specialists. Thus, we now have a vast, detailed, if unevenly-preserved, background to the Old Testament's literature, religion and history. This provides a radically different perspective. By way of example, we now touch briefly on sample topics and periods in the Old Testament affected by these external, essentially factual resources.

Early Genesis (chs 1-11)

... The literary framework:

  1. Creation,

  2. long time-spans (king-lists or genealogy),

  3. crisis: Deity punishes erring humanity by a Flood,

  4. again, long time-spans (king-lists or genealogy),

  5. to ‘modern times'.

is shared with early Babylonia (S. Iraq), whence Abraham came westward (around 19th/18th centuries BC). This type of framework ceased to be used in such ancient literature after around 1600 BC. It is genuinely very ancient, and cannot possibly have been first composed or copied by an imaginary ‘P' in Babylon in the 6th/5th centuries BC or later, as is commonly suggested. ...

... The long reigns or life-spans (cf. Methuselah's 969 years) do not affect the possible historicity of such individuals. In Kish, the reign of king (En-)me-bara-gisi is set at 900 years - yet he was historical enough to leave behind short cuneiform inscriptions! So, such large numbers have no bearing on a possible basic historicity. Given all these factors, ridicule of Genesis 1-11 is neither appropriate nor relevant.vi

The Patriarchs (Genesis 12-50)

It has been fashionable both 130 years ago and of now, to deny their historicity, because (so far...) these folk are unmentioned in antiquity, and to dismiss the narratives in Genesis 12-50 as late fictions, of any time within the 9th-4th centuries BC. But a score of comparative indicators very clearly suggests otherwise, as follows; we here give but a sampling.

(1) Wide travel by ordinary (i.e., non-‘official') people such as Abraham's family is known to be characteristic of the early 2nd millennium BC (their period), but less so in other periods; contrary to sociological dogma, emigration happened throughout early history, especially then.vii

(2) Genesis 14, which is about Abraham's role in a war between two groups of allied kings, is commonly dismissed as late fairy-tale, of (e.g.) around 5th century BC. But such alliances of eastern kings in and around Babylonia have to be after 3rd Dynasty of Ur which ended around 2000 BC, and before Hammurabi and Shamshi-Adad I divided Mesopotamia into exclusively Babylonia and Assyria around 1750 BC at the earliest. But within around 2000-1750 exclusively, Mesopotamia did have groups of rival states with changing alliances. Genesis 14 reflects this epoch, and none other.viii In particular, the intervention far west into Syria-Palestine by a king of Elam (SW Iran) with his truly Elamite name can only be at this one period, historically. Elam never intervened anywhere west of Babylonia proper at any other time.

(3) The kind of Canaan, of small city-states and broad pastoral areas, that the patriarchs are shown inhabiting (Genesis 12-38) is not the Palestine of the Hebrew Monarchy of the 10th-6th centuries BC (as Wellhausen claimed, and has been followed blindly by many since). It is now clearly that of Egypt's Execration Texts (around 1820-1780 BC), listing towns and tribes showing a very Genesis-like context. Even the price of 20 shekels that brought Joseph into slavery (Genesis 37:28) is precisely the correct average for a lad of his time and age in the 18th century BC; in later periods prices steadily rose!ix

(4) The presence of camels in the patriarchal narratives (Genesis 12:16; 24:14) and in Moses' time (Exodus 9:3) is frequently dismissed as an anachronism - not in their times. This is wrong; we do have good evidence for their limited role in both the early and late 2nd millennium BC. Examples include figurines from Ur and Byblos (patriarchal age), and pictures on pots from Pi-Ramesse (Egypt) and Qurraya in NW Arabia (Moses' period).x

(5) Likewise, the ‘Philistines' of Genesis (26:1, etc.) are constantly dismissed also as anachronisms - the first external mention (so far...) is of around 1177 BC, in Year 8 of Ramesses III of Egypt. However, this proves nothing about earlier periods, and Aegean peoples (of which the Philistines were one) did visit and live in Canaan throughout the 2nd millennium BC, as finds there of Minoan and (later on) Mycenean pottery prove clearly. It is perfectly possible, in any case, that ‘Philistines' is simply a ‘Moses-period' update for Caphtorim, or Kaptaru, ‘Cretans'. So it is too early yet to condemn the patriarchs' neighbours as out of place in their time.

Exodus and Sinai Data (Exodus - Deuteronomy)xi

As with the patriarchs, people repeatedly, squawk: 'No trace is found of the Hebrews in Egypt, or of the exodus; so, they are fiction!' A total failure in logic! Two vital points must be remembered here. First, almost no administrative documents survive from the Egyptian East Delta (whence the exodus took off), because being papyri, they simply perished in the sopping East-Delta mud when discarded, just like old newspapers in our rain-swept gutters. All we have is a handful sent to Memphis and discarded into the dry desert of Saqqara. Second, the Exodus was a defeat for the pharaoh; and pharaohs never publicly celebrated total defeats!

Various background facts point to early date and factuality of Exodus-to-Deuteronomy. Again, the exclusively early links render impossible the common theories of late origin or mere fairy-tales. Consider the following:

(1) The city of Ramesses of Exodus 1:11 is now known to be the Pi-Ramesse some 4 miles long by 2 miles wide, built by Ramesses II (around 1279-1213 BC), which lasted effectively only 150 years to around 1130 BC. With the rise of nearby Tanis (the biblical Zoan) from around 1070 BC, Ramesses sank into oblivion, unknown to later writers. A 1st-millennum psalmist (within 10th-6th centuries BC) sets the Exodus in "the fields of Zoan".xii

(2) The details of the first nine plagues at the Exodus are tied very closely to the annual regime of the Nile in Egypt (July/August to March/April), under the impact of an over-high flood. The details presuppose close knowledge of such special conditions (not every year!) not available to faraway writers in the Levant, or still less in Babylonian exile which was almost a thousand miles away.

(3) Some geographic details are peculiar to the 14th/13th centuries BC. One is the chain of military depots and forts that lined the Mediterranean coast route from Egypt's Delta to Canaan then. No wonder that the exodus Hebrews were expressly told not to go that way (Exodus 13:17-18)! After around 1200, almost all of these installations were defunct; nobody could have written about them centuries later, as is too easily assumed. Other Delta locations at the Exodus are also true to this period.xiii

(4) Two acts of Moses at Sinai. There he brought his people a comprehensive covenant with their God as their sole sovereign, and had built a small portable tent-shrine, or the ‘Tabernacle', as focus for worship of God on their travels. Both institutions bear clear marks of their age and authenticity.

(i) In Near-Eastern antiquity, law, treaty and covenant are three aspects of regulating human relations:

(a) within a community,

(b) between distinct communities,

and (c) between a community and its deity.

The ‘law' at Sinai (Exodus-Leviticus), renewed in Moab (Deuteronomy) and celebrated in Canaan (Joshua 24), shows the layout and profile of treaties, laws and covenants current in the late 2nd millennium (around 1400-1200 BC), and not of later times. A Deuteronomy as we have it could not have been set out as it is now in around 621 BC, despite current dogma to that effect (based solely on De Wette's antique and outdated speculations).

(ii) The Tabernacle used wholly 2nd-millennium (and especially Egyptian) design, with its constructional framework plan of outer room and inner sanctum, with rectangular court around it. Abundant evidence in texts from Mari (18th century BC), example from Egypt (around 2500 BC!) and the war-tent and camp of Ramesses II (13th century), plus terms from Ugarit in North Syria (both 13th century) then show the true date of Moses' tabernacle. No further such data exist after about 1000 BC, except the Neo-Assyrian war-tents and enclosures of wholly different design, and without the religious overtones of the early structures in Mari, Egypt and Ugarit. We are not dealing with a mere priestly fiction in Exodus 35-40 and Leviticus 1-7, as is commonly alleged in dogmatic fashion on no evidence whatever other than 19th-century guesswork, now invalidated by today's hard data.

Into Canaan

It is commonplace in Old Testament studies to caricature Joshua as presenting a total conquest and occupation of all Canaan by Joshua, and so make it incompatible with a supposed gradual penetration in Judges. Not so. Read the actual texts!

Joshua destroyed Jericho and Ai in South Canaan; his Southern campaign killed rulers and damaged towns; likewise his Northern campaign in Galilee destroyed only the key city of Hazor. Each time, he returned to Gilgal at the Jordan. At his death, Israel fully occupied only a limited highlands North-South strip of land from Hebron to Jericho in the South, and from Jericho up to Shechem and Tirzah in the North. There remained ‘very much land to be possessed' (Joshua 13:1)! But Canaanite power overall had been temporarily maimed. In Joshua 14-19, allotments were assigned, but still remained to be occupied at Joshua's death (cf. Joshua 17:18). Joshua 21:43-45 came fully true in due course - but not wholly under Joshua. Judges says very little about ongoing occupation (only in Judges 1:1-2:5 - initial success gave way to partial failure (cf. Judges 2:10 - 3:5)). Except in Judges 18, the rest of the book of Judges deals with crises and not with settlement.

The Israel Stela of Year 5 of pharaoh Merenptah firmly places Israel in ‘Late Bronze II' Canaan by 1209/08 BC - and as a tribal community. Immediately thereafter (around 1200-1150 BC), archaeologically, ‘Iron I' Canaan experienced a rash of numerous and new village-settlements. This dovetails neatly with the arrival of about 20,000 Hebrews from over Jordan.xiv

Joshua-Judges should be termed the Israelite entry into Canaan (neither 'conquest' nor 'infiltration'). The claim that Israel was always in Canaan (never in Egypt) fails totally to account for all of Genesis to Deuteronomy, and all the direct links shown by external data.xv Of 25 places mentioned in Joshua, all are known archaeologically as functioning in this period, except Makkedah (built over) and Ai (slight settlement, heavily eroded?) Not a bad score!xvi

The United Monarchy

Attempts to abolish this period fail on the facts.

(1) Mention of David. T.L. Thompson's declaration of David's non-existence in 1992 was brutally disproven in 1993 by discovery of the Tel Dan stela (dated around 840 BC) mentioning 'the Dynasty (‘House') of David'xvii, and of a like mention on the Mesha Stelaxviii (also around 840). The place-name 'heights of David'xix in the geographic list by Shoshenq I of Egypt (biblical Shishak), around 925 BC, comes less than 50 years after David's death!xx

(2) Solomon's marrying an Egyptian princess is not an error as often claimed, but corresponds to known usage at precisely this period (10th century).

(3) Solomon's stated wealthxxi is not the fantasy that some claim. After Shishak's death, his successor Osorkon I spent almost 400 tons of gold and silver on Egypt's temples (in part, Solomonic loot by Shishak?).

(4) Solomon's temple (plus furnishings) and palace-complex both directly reflect 10th-century usage and earlier practice, including gold plating, as was customary in Egypt and Mesopotamia. His administrative practices (1 Kings 4:7-19) are those that are known also in Syria earlier.

(5) The archaeology. The attempt by Finkelstein and Silverman to down-date 10th century ‘Iron II' remains by about 80 years, in a vain attempt to rob the United Monarchy of any archaeology, is not generally accepted, and is mistaken on many counts.xxii

Twin Kingdoms, Exile and Afterxxiii

Hebrew chronology about 931-586 BC in Kings is closely accurate throughout...

(1) Assyrian annals (Shalmaneser III to Assurbanipal) mention Israelite kings Ahab, Jehu, Joash, Menahem, Pekah and Hoshea, and kings Ahaz, Hezekiah and Manasseh of Judah.

(2) Early Hebrew records include accounts-ostraca from Samaria (8th century), letters from Lachish (early 6th), and royal seal-impressions naming kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, and also biblically-attested officials of Jeremiah's time.

(3) Neo-Babylonian sources record the conquest of Palestine in 605, capture of Jerusalem (and change of kings) in 597, plus rations for Jehoiachin and family while exiled in Babylon (594).

(4) In the Persian period (around 539-332 BC), of Nehemiah's foes:

(i) Sanballat (I) of Samaria turns up in a papyrus from Jews in Egypt;

(ii) Tobiah the Ammonite's family later left tombs in Jordan;

(iii) ‘Geshem the Arabian' was actually King of NW Arabian Qedar (whose son Qaynu dedicated

a silver bowl), and possibly the Gashm (Jasm) of a Dedanite inscription.

(5) The archaeology shows that most of Judah lay fallow under the Exile, and recovered only slowly under Persia.

In Conclusion

It must be emphasised that old-style Old Testament studies have never caught up with today's transformed state of information on the Hebrew Bible in its Near-Eastern context; they still carry outdated 19th-century theoretical ‘excess baggage'. Modern agendas of post-modernist type are wholly irrelevant. Careful systematic study of original source-materials in their proper phases and settings and comparing results critically with the existing Old Testament text indicates increasingly that the biblical writers knew what they were talking about - and left us reliable information. Our modern ideas often stand in more need of correction than their text!

End Notes

i Readers interested in more detail, with proper references to factual source-materials, etc., may find useful this writer's recent work On the Reliability of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids; Eerdmans (2003), covering all periods from Genesis to Nehemiah in some 600 pages and forty line-plates. It is referred-to hereafter as OROT.

ii The Jawistic source ‘J' included all texts that used the divine name Yahweh.

iii The Elohistic source ‘E' included all texts that used the divine title Elohim.

iv The Priestly source ‘P' included all texts that concern priests and priestly ritual.

v See any atlas, for Egypt to Iraq.

vi On all this, cf. OROT, chapter 9.

vii For people doing it, and their routes, cf. OROT, Figs. 37, 42.

viii For maps, OROT, Fig. 41.

ix See OROT, Fig. 43

x Cf. OROT, Fig. 46

xi For the exodus period, invaluable are J. K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt, OUP (1997), and Ancient Israel and Sinai, OUP (2005).

xii Cf. Psalm 78:12

xiii See Hoffmeier, 1997, 2005

xiv For instance, as in about 60 villages of about 350 folk (only about 35 homes each).

xv The idea of Hebrews fleeing from coastal Canaan into the hills to escape Egyptian tax-collectors makes no sense - the Egyptian army and taxmen would simply follow them!

xvi See further OROT, chapter 5.

xvii byt-Dwd, 'the Dynasty (‘House') of David'

xviii Bt-[D]wd (no other restoration makes sense)

xix hdbyt-Dwt; Dwd >Dwt in Egyptian and Old-South-Arabian

xx That list of places subdued in Palestine (covering both Judah and Israel) was engraved by Shoshenq I to celebrate his invasion there against kings Rehoboam and Jeroboam, as also recorded in 1 Kings 14:25-26 (cf. 2 Chronicles 12:1-10). The pharaoh certainly reached as far north as Megiddo, where part of a triumphal monument of his has been found.

xxi E.g., 120 talents in gifts = 6 tons a time; 666 talents annually = 21 tons.

xxii For this and other details, cf. OROT, chapter 4.

xxiii Cf. OROT, chapters 2-3, 8, 10.

© Kenneth A. Kitchen 2006

Source: K. A. Kitchen, ‘The Factual Reliability of the Old Testament in the 21st Century', From Athens to Jerusalem vol 6.2, UCCF (2006) pp1-6 is used with permission. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the prior permission of the author.