The Bible — Not a Book of Science, and NOT a Book of History
In Creationism and Intelligent Design — On the Road to Extinction, [July, 2012], I trust I laid to rest the notion that the Bible is a good source of science. (And didn’t even have to mention obvious evidence like I Kings 7:23 and II Chronicles 4:2, wherein, apparently, the writers of the Word of God thought the value of pi was 3!) Don’t go to Genesis for your natural history!
Then, when using the Protestant Bible (the one without the Apocrypha) to research my conclusions regarding the origins of Christianity, I was struck with how the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem near the end of the Jewish Revolt of 62-70 CE (or A.D.) signaled a sudden historical vacuum of eye witnesses into which the writers of the New Testament could inject whatever they were hearing or thinking, all practically devoid of the checks and balances of contemporaneous historians. Josephus is a pleasant exception. (Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012], Sorting Out Constantine I the Great and His Momma, [Feb., 2015], Sorting Out Jesus, [July, 2015], At Last, a Probable Jesus, [August, 2015], and Jesus — A Keeper, [Sept., 2015])
I asked myself if the New Testament is anemic in reliable history, what about the Old? I was spurred to hold the whole Bible (including the Apocrypha) in historical scrutiny by the same spur that compelled me to sort out the origins of my Christian faith — my 21st century development of what I call Perception Theory, which I wrote down after “sorting out” Christianity. (Perception Is Everything, [Jan., 2016], Perception Theory (Perception is Everything) — Three Applications, [Feb., 2016], Perception Theory: Adventures in Ontology — Rock, Dog, Freedom, & God, [March, 2016], I Believe!, [Oct., 2016], Hope and Faith, [Jan., 2017], Prayer, [Feb., 2017], Egalite: A Qualified Virtue, [Feb., 2018], Going Global, [March, 2018], AVAPS!, [May, 2018], Toward an Imagined Order of Everything, Using AVAPS, [June, 2018], The “Problem ” of Free Will, [June, 2018], Perception Theory and Memes — Full Circle, [March, 2019], and God — The Ultimate Meme, or The Problem of God, [August, 2019])
To ask such a question so late in my life indicates how throughout my years as a church-going Christian I never questioned the historicity of the Bible. In fact, as I analyzed my religious faith, I realized that a foundational pillar of my personal belief was that the Bible was based upon reliable history. Looking at the dates of the posts above, it is embarrassing to see how long I waited to vet the reliability of biblical historicity. Better late than never, I suppose. Nonetheless, biblical historians have every right to respond to this post with something like “No shit, Sherlock?! Welcome to the 21st century!” I deserve it. I see myself as no “higher” than a rank amateur as a historical reader — an amateur so “rank” as to satisfy myself I can use the reliability of historical consensus of the present time (and, presumably of the historical consensus coming in the future) and pass it on as a retired teacher to anyone interested. I am no historian, but enough of an amateur historian to not be dangerous; that is, one can rely on what I pass on has the reliability of consensus; if I give my personal opinion or commentary that is not necessarily part of the consensus, I try to make that a clear distinction.
I used my sudden expansion of reading time rendered me by social isolation amidst the 2020 covid-19 viral pandemic to read up on the historicity of the Old Testament. I read from five books reflecting the updated version of ancient history that has become available to us since WWII. Published in hard cover by The Folio Society, they are: 1) The Egyptians, by Alan Gardiner (1961), 2) The Babylonians, by H.W.F. Saggs (1962 & 1988), 3) The Hittites, by O.R. Gurney (1952, 1954, 1981, & 1990), 4) The Phoenicians, by Glenn E. Markoe (2000, 2002, & 2005), and 5) The Persians, by J.M. Cook (1983). 2) also covers in depth the Assyrians. These five are part of a Folio Society ancient history series that also includes The Minoans, by J. Lesley Fitton (2002 & 2004) and The Mycenaeans, by Lord William Taylour and John Chadwick (1964 and 1983). I did not read these two for purposes of this post. Full disclosure, I read completely 1) and 2), but skipped the architectural, economic, and other cultural details of 3), 4), and 5), as these chapters were practically void of biblical references I could use. I made sure I covered the complete historical narrative and the religious cultural studies of all five.
What this series of ancient history generally tells us is that we now have a historical consensus not only based upon sources like the Bible, but based upon sources found since the middle of the 19th century, which include archaeological finds now scattered all over the world (due to colonialism and European cultural exploitation) and finds as recent as 20th century digs interrupted from completion by the two world wars of the 20th century. The series prides itself in being well “grounded” (pardon the pun) in archaeology, in actual artifacts upon which in recent decades an agreed-upon interpretation has been established as a “new” consensus.
With just the Bible as your historical source, which does, after overcoming translation difficulties involving different languages and alphabets (5 different languages and writings from the 5 above), reference the five peoples which named the five books numbered above, myopic chronicling and confusion of names and events would probably cloud your panoramic view of what happened beginning about 5,000 years ago. But as the longest running archaeology-based study over the centuries, Egyptology, has shown, when you increase your sources, the forensic picture of “what happened?” becomes more and more “fog free.” I found it useful to think of the span between roughly 3,000 BCE (B.C.) to New Testament times (1st century CE or A.D.) in the Bible-relevant settings (Egypt, the Levant — eastern Mediterranean shore, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia — Asia Minor) as Egyptian pharaonic dynasties (Dynasties I – XXXI, 3,100 BCE to 332 BCE) starting first, followed by the Mesopotamian Sumerian and Akkadian civilizations (2,370 BCE to 1,900 BCE) becoming the Old Babylonian Empire (think Code of Hammurabi) (1,900 BCE to 1,500 BCE), which gave way to the Assyrian Empire (1,500 BCE to 615 BCE), which in turn gave way to the New Babylonian Empire (think Nebuchadnezzar) (750 BCE to 539 BCE). In other words, Assyria “sandwiched” between two Babylons, with Egypt always to the southwest. Affecting the affairs of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian Empires were the Hittite Empire (1,700 BCE to 1,250 BCE) and the Phoenician Empire (not a contiguous nation, but a collection of confederated sea-going city-states like Arwad, Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre) (3,100 BCE to 65 BCE). The New Babylonian Empire was replaced by the Persian Empire (560 BCE – 330 BCE). The Persian Empire was conquered by Alexander the Great, creating the Hellenistic or Macedonian-Greek Empire (332 BCE – 65 BCE), which was ended by the Roman Empire, the empire in power in New Testament times. The historical parts of the Apocrypha were set in times the legacy of Alexander’s partitioned empire ruled the Levant, or the “Holy Land.” From the earliest date listed above to the latest spans four stages of the Bronze Age, three stages of the Iron Age, the Persian period, and the Hellenistic period.
Amidst this long historical timeline appears the Hebrew Iron Age kingdom of David and Solomon (1,040 BCE to 931 BCE), without any archaeological evidence of Abraham, Jacob, the Exodus, Moses, or Joshua (more on this later). In 931 BCE this kingdom split in twain into the ten tribes (the “lost” tribes) of Israel (Kingdom of Israel) and the two tribes of Judea (Kingdom of Judah), each with a long line of kings corroborated in records involving Assyria, New Babylon, Egypt, Hatti (Hittite Empire), and Phoenicia. For instance, Solomon used Phoenician builders for his Temple, the god Baal, with whose prophets Elijah clashed in I Kings 18: 20-40, was a Phoenician god, in the book “Bel and the Dragon” in the Apocrypha, “Bel” is another name for the Babylonian god Marduk, and the infamous Jezebel, wife of King Ahab of Israel, was a Phoenician princess. In 722 BCE Israel was conquered by Assyrian king Shalmaneser V, marked by the fall of Israel’s capital Samaria. The ten tribes of Israel were deported from their homeland, becoming the “lost” tribes, and replaced by a people who were known as the Samaritans by Jesus’ time. Such “diasporas” were common practice of conquering kings of Assyria and Babylon. In 586 BCE Judah was conquered by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, destroying Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem and deporting many of the Jews back to Babylon, marking a three-stage Jewish Exile, the most famous of which was the Babylonian Captivity from 586 BCE to 538 BCE. (The Bible would have us believe that Jerusalem (around 701 BCE) was spared from an earlier conquest by Assyria under Shalmaneser’s successor (after Sargon II), Sennacherib, by divine intervention, but it seems more probable Sennacherib had to call off the siege because of documented threats to his authority back home.)
My uptake of the overview of Israel’s and Judah’s role during the Assyrian and New Babylonian Empires were that they both were “bit” players on the international scene of the coming and going of Empires in Egypt and the Middle East, making unwise alliances with Egypt or Phoenicia instead of “straying” from the “true” God Yahweh. Both were pawns caught in the interplay of powerful empires that ebbed and flowed in their extended “neighborhood” for centuries; they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. In fact, the kingdom founded by David apparently came about at a time when he could fill a power vacuum in the Levant when the Babylonians and Assyrians were in weakened states of adjustment, the Hittites were plummeting in power, and the Egyptians were floundering in dynasty redefinition. Just as the New Testament can be seen as apologetics for the fact that Jesus was tried and executed as a common criminal, the Old Testament, in my opinion, can be seen as apologetics that Solomon’s Temple was destroyed and the “best” of the ancient Jewish people (God’s “Chosen”) were taken into exile in the Babylonian Captivity.
So far, the intersection of Old Testament books and this new historical consensus is roughly confined to the biblical “histories” of I and II Kings, I and II Chronicles and the major prophets Isaiah, Elisha, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. I mention the Daniel reference in Why Some White Evangelical Christians Voted for and/or Still Support Donald Trump, [Dec., 2018], where I argue “White Evangelical Protestant Christian LiteralistS,” or WEPCLS, venerate the Persian king Cyrus (560 BCE – 530 BCE) as a “tool of God” for letting the captive Jews in Babylon (conquered by Cyrus) return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II ( a rebuilding covered by the biblical books Ezra and Nehemiah). The historical truth is that Cyrus’ foreign policy featured the “innovative” foreign policy of expanding empires employing religious tolerance (The Jews, of course, worshiped Yahweh and Cyrus was a Zoroastrian, worshiping Ahuramazda.). Cyrus could could bring the Jews under the shadow of the Persian Empire without having to kill them into submission by freeing them from captivity.
But what about the most famous part of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), the story of Abraham, Moses, and the Exodus? Where is the non-Hebrew historical evidence of these events? This evidence simply is not there in the new historical consensus. To defend Judaeo-Christian faith in the historicity of the Pentateuch with something like “The evidence will be found soon!” is as weak as the Mormon response I got in a public meeting while I was in graduate school to my question of why had not archaeological evidence been found in North America for events presented as history in the Book of Mormon. I’m still waiting for confirmed Mormon archaeological evidence. Turns out Deuteronomy may be the only book of the five written before the Captivity (circa 650 BCE), the others written post-Captivity around 200 years later, after Judea had been reestablished, thanks to Cyrus’ innovative foreign policy.
What this means to me is that the apologetics for the existence of the Jews, the ancient Hebrews, had to be ramped up in the wake of the “close call” of the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the Captivity. Just like the destruction of the Second Temple in the Jewish Revolt against the Romans (62-70 CE) was a lynch-pin around which the New Testament was spun, the Captivity in the wake of the destruction of Solomon’s Temple was a lynch-pin around which much of the “early” Old Testament was spun. To give the Semitic nomadic tribes “historical legitimacy” and be designated as “God’s Chosen,” despite their bloody conquest of Canaan, the “land of milk and honey” had to be part of God’s “covenant” with a long line of Semites going back to Abraham of Mesopotamian Ur, through Jacob, Joseph into Egypt, and Moses as the deliverer from Egypt. Thanks to the Captivity and access to Egyptian stories over the centuries, the writers of most of the Pentateuch had lots of “grist for their mill” of historical legitimization. The two different creation stories of Genesis (Genesis 1:1 to 2:4 & Genesis 2:4 to 3:24) not only reflect the different Old Testament sources dubbed J, E, D, and P by “higher” biblical criticism, they reflect similar creation stories in the origin traditions of the ancient religions of Mesopotamia. The story of the Great Flood was ripped without much change from a sub-plot of the Sumerian-Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh (The original Noah was actually Utanapishtim, and the story of the release of the dove from the ark was accurately copied.). The Tower of Babel story was based upon the pyramid-like ziggurats of the great cities of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. “Moses” was an Egyptian name (Pharaohs Amosis and Thutmosis I through Thutmosis IV — 1,575-1,405 BCE) and there was a charming Egyptian story of a child from the desert found in a basket in the Nile by Pharaoh’s family. And the Mosaic Code of Law seems to be one of many adaptations of the Code of Hammurabi (1,792-1,750 BCE). The conquerors of Canaan were given, in my opinion, “respectable historical roots” by a cleverly written epic or saga in several Old Testament books whose historical accuracy could not be vetted until the 19th century CE.
Attempts to justify Moses and the Exodus, such as identifying the Hebrews in Egypt with the Hyksos “foreign” rule of about 108 years in the Second Intermediate Period before the New Kingdom dynasties of Egypt (before Amosis and the Thutmosises) or identifying the Pharaoh of the Exodus as being Ramesses II (1,290-1,224 BCE) do not bear up under Egyptian archaeology. It has been offered that the Exodus does not show up in Egyptian hieroglyphics because the unspecified Pharaoh was “defeated.” But a defeat of Ramesses II by the Hittites and their allies under Hittite king Muwatallis II at the battle of Kadesh (1,275 BCE) in the Levant was spun as a “victory” for Ramesses — he “single-handedly” saving the Egyptian army; we know it was an Egyptian defeat by historical verification that the Hittites never withdrew from the Levant right after the battle. Thus, if a group of slaves had been dispatched from Egypt on such a scale as the Bible relates, chances are another “victory” for the Pharaoh would have been recorded; none such has been found. Mimimally, had anything like the Exodus actually happened, the biblical saga writers would have named who the Pharaoh of record was, it seems to me.
The importance of Moses and the Exodus to both Judaism and Christianity is clear, whether written by saga writers or not. The traditions and theology of the Passover cannot be overlooked. The Jewish/Canadian archaeologist Simcha Jacobovici (not real popular with Christians, due to his research on controversial ossuaries that have important implications for the origins of Christianity, as I pointed out near the end of Sorting Out the Apostle Paul, [April, 2012]) has on his TV show “The Naked Archaeologist” done some great geography and Old Testament exegesis involving rates of migration on foot to triangulate a more probable site for Mr. Sinai than the traditional site in the south central region of the Sinai Peninsula (some mountain northwest of the port of Aqaba. the port at the north end of the Gulf of Aqaba). That the site where Moses supposedly received the Ten Commandments is problematic to pinpoint does not bode well for the writers of the Pentateuch.
However, it cannot be denied that the power of a migrating people in search of a “promised land” is vital to groups other than the ancient Hebrews. A recent consensus on the origins of the Aztecs (The Aztecs, by Nigel Davies (1973)) reports a migration story with intermediate, temporary settling of the original Aztecs, the Mexica, from 1,111 CE to 1,345 CE, with evidence of a “travel log” between these dates of about 52 years. (Compare with the children of Israel “wandering” the wilderness of Sinai for 40 years.) Along the way they were guided, Yahweh-like, by their god Huitzilopochtli. Circa the latter date of 1,345 CE, they came upon the sight of an eagle perched upon a prickly pear cactus holding a rattlesnake in its beak and claw (See the national flag of Mexico), and there they founded their city in the lakes, Tenochtitlan (Mexico City).
In addition, I have found to my satisfaction that the lynch-pin of the Captivity shows itself in the Old Testament history that resonates with the new historical consensus through cultural absorption. As I pointed out in Why Some White Evangelical Christians Voted for and/or Still Support Donald Trump, [Dec., 2018], comparing II Samuel 24:1 (pre-Captivity, c. 800 BCE) with I Chronicles 21:1 (post-Captivity, c. 450 BCE), both describing the same event, the concept of Satan entered into the ancient Jewish writings (as a sort of tempter, prosecuting attorney, or gadfly of God, shown vividly in the book of Job). The concept was drawn from the evil counterpart of the good Zoroastrian god Ahuramazda (The Zeus of Persian theology), in my opinion. The evil god was called Ahriman, and Satan passed into the New Testament and Christianity (not to mention Islam) as more evil than gadfly. (Also see The Devil, by Jeffrey Burton Russell (1977)) (Could the argument be made that the serpent that tempted Eve in post-Captivity written Genesis (also c. 450 BCE) was based upon the same concept as the Satan of Job?)
To find reliable history about the ancient Hebrews, the ancient Jews, God’s “chosen” people, in the Bible instead of in the growing historical consensus of the peoples of Egypt, the Levant, and Mesopotamia would be like trying to find reliable history about the Vikings in the Icelandic Sagas instead of in books like The Vikings, by Gwyn Jones (1968, 1973, & 1984).
My copies of the Bible will always have a place in my library, but never as books of science or of history. The Old Testament and the Apocrypha remain sacred to Jews, Christians, and Moslems, and the New Testament remains equally sacred to Christians. Sacred — nothing more and nothing less. The Bible will always be a source of inspiration, an epic of importance, and a saga of historical morality — like the Qur’an or Koran is to Moslems, like the Vedas are to Hindus, like the Avesta is to Zoroastrians, like the Hinayana and Mahayana texts are to Buddhists.