FALSE TESTAMENT: ARCHAEOLOGY REFUTES THE BIBLE'S CLAIM TO HISTORY
by Daniel Lazare
[Indiana Jones] One of the great dangers of archaeology -- not to life and limb, although that does sometimes take place -- no, I'm talking about folklore. Any questions, then? -- Raiders of the Lost Ark, directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Harrison Ford
Harper's Magazine, Issue: March, 2002
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.
101 Myths of the Bible: How Ancient Scribes Invented Biblical History
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.
So how did such a glorious revolution come to be? As is usually the case, we must first look to when cracks started developing in the ancien regime.
Ironically, the new archaeology represents something of a circling back to what was once known as the "Higher Criticism," a largely German school of biblical study that relied solely on linguistic and textual analysis. 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. As the German scholar Julius Wellhausen put it in the 1870s: "The whole literary character and loose connection of the ... story of the patriarchs reveal how gradually its different elements were brought together, and how little they have coalesced into a unity." Rather than a chronicle of genuine events, the history that Genesis set forth was an artificial construct, a narrative framework created long after the facts in order to link together a series of unconnected folktales like pearls on a string.
If the linguists of the Higher Criticism were generally skeptical in regard to the Old Testament, modern biblical archaeology as it began taking shape in the early nineteenth century was something entirely different. The first modern archaeologists to set foot in the Holy Land were New England Congregationalists determined to make use of rigorous scientific methods in order to strip away centuries of what they regarded as Roman Catholic superstition and prejudice. As the American biblical scholar Edward Robinson, who first came to Palestine in 1838, put it, he would accept nothing until it was absolutely proven. And yet, as a dutiful Calvinist, Robinson assumed from the outset that whatever he uncovered would broadly confirm what he had learned years earlier in Sunday school. Evidence that buttressed the biblical account was eagerly sought out, while evidence that contradicted it was ignored. British archaeologists set sail a generation later with an even more explicit set of preconceptions. As the Archbishop of York told the newly created Palestine Exploration Fund in London in 1865,
This country of Palestine belongs to you and to me, it is essentially ours. It was given to the Father of Israel [i.e., Abraham] in the words: "Walk through the land in the length of it, and in the breadth of it, for I will give it unto thee." We mean to walk through Palestine in the length and in the breadth of it, because that land has been given unto us....
The first archaeologists were thus guilty of one of the most elementary of scientific blunders: rather than allowing the facts to speak for themselves, they had tried to fit them into a preconceived theoretical framework. Another layer of political mystification was added in the twentieth century by Zionist pioneers eager for evidence that the Jewish claim to the Holy Land was every bit as ancient as the Old Testament said it was. In 1928 members of a settlement known as Beth Alpha uncovered an ancient synagogue mosaic while digging an irrigation ditch. Since the settlers were members of a left-wing faction known as Hashomer Hatzair, it was inevitable that some would argue that the find should be left to the dustbin of history and that the work of building a modern agricultural settlement should continue uninterrupted. But others recognized its significance: the more evidence they uncovered of an ancient Jewish presence in the Holy Land, the more they would succeed in legitimizing a modern colonization effort. As the number of digs multiplied and turned into a national passion, what the Israeli archaeologist Eliezer Sukenik described as a specifically "Jewish archaeology" was born.
The result was a happy union of science, religion, and politics that by the 1950s would eventually bring together everyone from Christian fundamentalists in the American heartland to the Israeli military establishment. When David Ben-Gurion, the founder of modern Israel, spoke of a sweeping offensive in the 1948 War of Independence, he did so in language purposely evocative of the Book of Joshua. The armies of Israel, he declared, had "struck the kings of Lod and Ramleh, the kings of Belt Naballa and Deir Tarif, the kings of Kola and Migdal Zedek.... "Yigael Yadin, Eliezer Sukenik's Son, who was not only Israel's leading archaeologist but a top military commander, referred to an Israeli military incursion into the Sinai by quipping that it was the first time Israeli forces had set foot on the peninsula in 3,400 years. All assumed that the ancient events Israel claimed to be reenacting had actually occurred.
The politicization of archaeology reached something of a climax in the early 1960s, when Yadin was put in command of the excavation of Masada, a hilltop fortress where nearly 1,000 Jewish warriors had committed suicide rather than surrender to the Romans in A.D. 73. In Yadin's hands, Masada emerged as Israel's preeminent nationalist shrine, a place where military recruits were assembled to take an oath of allegiance in dramatic nighttime ceremonies--this despite complaints on the part of a few scholars that evidence for a mass suicide was lacking and that there was reason to believe that ancient accounts of the event were deliberately falsified.
Around this time, the pop novelist James Michener summed up the state of official belief in his heavy-breathing bestseller The Source (which this writer savored as a teenager). Using a fictional archaeological dig to weave a series of tales about Palestinian life from prehistoric times to the modern era, Michener briskly laid out the middlebrow orthodoxy of the day: i.e., that God had entered into a pact with the ancient Israelites early in the second millennium B.C., that Jews had dominated the Holy Land for some 2,000 years thereafter, and that with the birth of modern Israel they were claiming their birthright.
"Deuteronomy is so real to me," Michener has a fictional Israeli archaeologist declare, "that I feel as if my immediate ancestor--say, my great-grandfather with desert dust still in his clothes--came down that valley with goats and donkeys and stumbled onto this spot." Michener says of another fictional archaeologist, an American who has just been reading the Torah,
This time he gained a sense of the enormous historicity of the book.... He now read the Ten Commandments as if he were among the tribes listening to Moses. It was he who was coming out of Egypt, dying of thirst in the Sinai, retreating in petulant fear from the first invasion of the Promised Land. He put the Bible down with a distinct sense of having read the history of a real people....
Yet it was precisely this "historicity" that was beginning to come under fire. Resurrecting a theory first proposed in the 1920s, an Israeli named Yohanan Aharoni infuriated the Israeli archaeological establishment by arguing that evidence in support of an Israelite war of conquest in the thirteenth century B.C. was weak and unconvincing. 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. Although archaeologists claimed in the 1930s to have uncovered evidence that the walls of Jericho had fallen much as the Book of Joshua said they had, a British archaeologist named Kathleen Kenyon was subsequently able to demonstrate, based on Mycenaean pottery shards found amid the ruins, that the destruction had occurred no later than 1300 B.C., seventy years or more before the conquest could have happened. Whatever caused the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down, it was not Joshua's army.
The enormous ideological edifice that Yigael Yadin and others had erected was weakening at the base. Whereas formerly every pottery fragment or stone tablet appeared to confirm the biblical account, now nothing seemed to fit. Attempting to pinpoint precisely when Abraham had departed the ancient city of Ur, the American scholar William F. Albright, a pillar of the archaeological establishment until his death in 1971, theorized that he had left as part of a great migration of "Amorite" (literally "western") desert nomads sometime between 2100 and 1800 B.C. This was the theory that Paul Johnson would later cite in A History of the Jews. Subsequent research into urban development and nomadic growth patterns indicated that no such mass migration had taken place and that several cities mentioned in the Genesis account did not exist during the time frame Albright had suggested. Efforts to salvage the theory by moving up Abraham's departure to around 1500 B.C. foundered when it was pointed out that, this time around, Genesis failed to mention cities that did dominate the landscape during this period. No matter what time frame was advanced, the biblical text did not accord with what archaeologists were learning about the land of Canaan in the second millennium.
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.
In hindsight, it all seems so obvious. An ancient text purporting to be a record of events centuries earlier--how could it not fall short of modern historical standards? How could it not reflect contemporary events more than events in the distant past? Beginning in the 1950s, doubts concerning the Book of Exodus multiplied just as they had about Genesis. The most obvious concerned the complete silence in contemporary Egyptian records concerning the mass escape of what the Bible says were no fewer than 603,550 Hebrew slaves. Such numbers no doubt were exaggerated. Yet considering how closely Egypt's eastern borders were patrolled at that time, how could the chroniclers of the day have failed to mention what was still likely a major security breach?
Old-guard academics professed to be untroubled. John Bright, a prominent historian, was dismissive of the entire issue. "Not only were Pharaohs not accustomed to celebrate reverses," he wrote in A History of Israel, long considered the standard account, "but an affair involving only a party of runaway slaves would have been to them of altogether minor significance." The scribes' silence concerning the mysterious figure of Moses, Bright went on, was also of no account. Regardless of what the chronicles did or did not say, "The events of exodus and Sinai require a great personality behind them. And a faith so unique as Israel's demands a founder as surely as does Christianity--or Islam, for that matter."
This was dogma masquerading as scholarship. Not only was there a dearth of physical evidence concerning the escape itself, as archaeologists pointed out, but the slate was blank concerning the nearly five centuries that the Israelites had supposedly lived in Egypt prior to the Exodus as well as the forty years that they supposedly spent wandering in the Sinai. Not so much as a skeleton, campsite, or cooking pot had turned up, Finkelstein and Silberman noted, even though "modern archeological techniques are quite capable of tracing even the very meager remains of hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads all over the world." Indeed, although archaeologists have found remains in the Sinai from the third millennium B.C. and the late first, they have found none from the thirteenth century.
As with Abraham, the effort to nail down a time frame for the departure created more problems than it resolved. Archaeologists had long zeroed in on a relatively narrow window of opportunity in the thirteenth century B.C. bounded by two independently verifiable events--the start of work on two royal cities in which the Book of Exodus says Hebrew slaves were employed ("and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh ...") and the subsequent erection of a victory stele, or monument, that describes a people identified as "Israel" already existing in Canaan. Hence, the flight into the Sinai had to have taken place either during the reign of a pharaoh known as Rameses or shortly after the death of Ramses II in 1213 B.C.
Once again the theory didn't add up. The Book of Numbers states that, following their escape, the Israelites came under attack from the "Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev," as they were "coming along the road to Atharim." But although excavations showed that a city of Arad existed in the early Bronze Age from roughly 3500 to 2200 B.C., and that an Iron Age fort arose on the site beginning in roughly 1150 B.C., it was deserted during the years in between. The Pentateuch says the Hebrews did battle with Sihon, king of the Amorites, at a city called Heshbon, but excavations have revealed that Heshbon did not exist during this period either. Nor did Edom, against whose king the Old Testament says the ancient Jews also made war.
Then came a series of archaeological studies conducted in the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967. Previously archaeologists had intensively studied specific sites and locales, digging deep in order to determine how technology and culture had changed from one century to the next. Now they tramped through hills and valleys looking for pottery shards and remnants of ancient walls in order to map out how settlement patterns had ebbed and flowed across broad stretches of terrain. Whereas previously archaeologists had concentrated on the lowland cities where the great battles mentioned in the Bible were said to have taken place, they now shifted their attention to the highlands located in the present West Bank. The results were little short of revolutionary. 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 such as the one advanced by Yohanan Aharoni. Rather than conquerors, the Hebrews were a native people who had never left in the first place. So why invent for themselves an identity as exiles and invaders? One reason may have been that people in the ancient world did not establish rights to a particular piece of territory by farming or by raising families on it but by seizing it through force of arms. Indigenous rights are an ideological invention of the twentieth century A.D. and are still not fully established in the twenty-first, as the plight of today's Palestinians would indicate. The only way that the Israelites could establish a moral right to the land they inhabited was by claiming to have conquered it sometime in the distant past. Given the brutal power politics of the day, a nation either enslaved others or was enslaved itself, and the Israelites were determined not to fall into the latter category.
If the Old Testament is to be believed, David and Solomon, rulers of the southern kingdom of Judah from about 1005 to about 931 B.C., made themselves masters of the northern kingdom of Israel as well. They represent, in the official account, a rare moment of national unity and power; under their reign, the combined kingdom was a force throughout the Fertile Crescent. The unified kingdom is said to have split into two rump states shortly after Solomon's death and, thus weakened, was all too easy for the Assyrian Empire and its Babylonian successor to pick off. But did a united monarchy encompassing all twelve tribes ever truly exist?
According to the Bible, Solomon was both a master builder and an insatiable accumulator. He drank out of golden goblets, outfitted his soldiers with golden shields, maintained a fleet of sailing ships to seek out exotic treasures, kept a harem of 1,000 wives and concubines, and spent thirteen years building a palace and a richly decorated temple to house the Ark of the Covenant. Yet not one goblet, not one brick, has ever been found to indicate that such a reign existed. If David and Solomon had been important regional power brokers, one might reasonably expect their names to crop up on monuments and in the diplomatic correspondence of the day. Yet once again the record is silent. True, an inscription referring to "Ahaziahu, son of Jehoram, king of the House of David" was found in 1993 on a fragment dating from the late ninth century B.C. But that was more than a hundred years after David's death, and at most all it indicates is that David (or someone with a similar name) was credited with establishing the Judahite royal line. It hardly proves that he ruled over a powerful empire.
Moreover, by the 1970s and 1980s a good deal of countervailing evidence--or, rather, lack of evidence--was beginning to accumulate. Supposedly, David had used his power base in Judah as a springboard from which to conquer the north. But archaeological surveys of the southern hill country show that Judah in the eleventh and tenth centuries B.C. was too poor and backward and sparsely populated to support such a military expedition. Moreover, there was no evidence of wealth or booty flowing back to the southern power base once the conquest of the north had taken place. Jerusalem seems to have been hardly more than a rural village when Solomon was reportedly transforming it into a glittering capital. And although archaeologists had long credited Solomon with the construction of major palaces in the northern cities of Gezer, Hazor, and Megiddo (better known as the site of Armageddon), recent analysis of pottery shards found on the sites, plus refined carbon-14 dating techniques, indicate that the palaces postdate Solomon's reign by a century or more.
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.
"They did wicked things that provoked Yahweh to anger. They worshiped idols, though Yahweh had said, `You shall not do this.'" Such was the "Yahweh-alone" movement's explanation for Israel's downfall. 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.
But then: disaster. After allowing his priests to establish a rigid religious dictatorship, Josiah rode off to rendezvous with an Egyptian pharaoh named Necho in the year 609 B.C. Although Chronicles says that the two monarchs met to do battle, archaeologists, pointing out that Josiah was in no position to challenge the mighty Egyptian army, suspect that Necho merely summoned Josiah to some sort of royal parley and then had him killed for unknown reasons. A model of pious rectitude, Josiah had done everything he thought God wanted of him. He had purified his kingdom and consecrated his people exclusively to Yahweh. Yet he suffered regardless. Judah entered into a period of decline culminating some twenty-three years later in the Babylonian conquest and exile.
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? As with any religion, cynicism and belief, realpolitik and genuine fervor, all came together in a way that we can barely begin to untangle. To say that the Jerusalem priesthood intentionally cooked up a phony history is to assume that the priests possessed a modern concept of historical truth and falsehood, and surely this is not so. As the biblical minimalist Thomas L. Thompson has noted, the Old Testament's authors did not subscribe to a sequential chronology but to some more complicated arrangement in which the great events of the past were seen as taking place in some foggy time before time. The priests, after all, were not inventing a past; they were inventing a present and, they trusted, a future.
Monotheism was unquestionably a great leap forward. At a time when there was no science, no philosophy, and no appreciable knowledge of the outside world, an obscure, out-of-the-way people somehow conceived of a lone deity holding the entire universe in his grasp. This was no small feat of imagination, and its consequences were enormous. Monotheism's attempt at a unified field theory--a single explanation for everything from the creation of the universe to the origin of law--failed, but in failing it ensured that people would try doubly hard to come up with some new "theory of everything" to take its place. The monotheistic revolution continued to build because it enlisted a larger and larger portion of the population in its great totalizing effort. The Book of Kings tells of the discovery, during Josiah's reign, of a sacred book, filled with rules and regulations that the Jews had so far failed to follow, deep within the recesses of the Temple. In other cultures, the king might have huddled over the book with his advisers and priests. But not Josiah. He called together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. He went up to the temple of Yahweh with the men of Judah, the people of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets--all the people from the least to the greatest. He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the temple of Yahweh. The king stood by the pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of Yahweh.... Then all the people pledged themselves to this covenant.
This was all quite novel. Whereas formerly the king and the priests alone were responsible to the national deity, now "all the people from the least to the greatest" took the pledge. The people had been transformed from mere onlookers into active participants. Arguably, the people of Judah were less free as a consequence of Josiah's reforms. Under the old pluralistic order they could sacrifice to other gods, and now they could sacrifice to just one. Yet with the new system's responsibilities to uphold the sacred covenant came the makings of a voice. No longer could the masses be counted on to remain silent.
Was the purpose of all this merely to pluck one tiny nation out of obscurity and elevate it above all others? If the Yahwists were groping for some concept of ethics to go with their universalism, for the most part they seem to have fallen woefully short. To quote Julius Wellhausen on the Jewish scriptures: "Monotheism is worked out to its furthest consequences, and at the same time is enlisted in the service of the narrowest selfishness."
A single, all-powerful god required a single set of sacred texts, and the process of composition and codification that led to what we now know as the Bible began under King Josiah and continued well into the Christian era. "Canonization" of this sort concentrated rather than dispelled questions of nationalism and universalism. A framework for faith, the Bible was equally a machine for generating heresy and doubt, and out of this debate eventually arose Christianity, Islam, Protestantism, and a great deal else besides.
The new universalism had enormous energy, encompassing as it did the entire cosmos and enlisting the entire population, but the new democratic spirit ran aground over the issue of universalism versus narrow nationalism. What, after all, was the point of mobilizing such a broad population in this manner? So that they could slaughter their neighbors all the more thoroughly? 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? Did an emerging concept of a more equitable social order apply only to Israel or to other nations as well?
In one form or another, these questions have been with us ever since.
Daniel Lazare is the author of America's Undeclared War: What's Killing
Our Cities and How We Can Stop It (Harcourt) and The Velvet Coup: The
Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of American Democracy
(Verso). His essay "Your Constitution Is Killing You" appeared in the
October 1999 issue.