Monday, February 4, 2013

The real history of the Bible

I've just watched the Bible's Buried Secrets, a video by Nova examining Biblical archaeology, for the second time. It's free if you've got Amazon Prime or $2 to buy, but it's worth viewing. I'm going to summarize some of the conclusions of Biblical Archaeologists here, although they're covered more thoroughly in the video.
  • There's evidence from the Merneptah Stele that the Kingdom of Israel existed as early as 1200 BC.
  • The Bible claims the Israelites entered Canaan from Egypt, and destroyed many Canaanite cities in a very short time period, and then divided the land between themselves.
    • There's no archaeological evidence of either the Israelites existing as slaves in Egypt, or of the Exodus.
    • Most of the Canaanite cities that were supposedly destroyed by Israel do not show signs of warfare or destruction.
    • A few Canaanite cities were destroyed violently, and some archaeologists ascribe their destruction to the Israelites.
      • But some archaeologists think the evidence better fits internal revolts. Many Canaanite kingdoms were in decline prior to the rise of the Israelites.
  • King David is the first figure in the Bible for which there is strong archaeological evidence of his existence.
  • The Israelites were polytheistic, and commonly worshipped Asherah as well as Yahweh, possibly as his wife.
  • All worship of Asherah appears to have stopped after the Jews were taken captive by Babylon around 600 BC

Based on the archeological evidence, I've drawn some conclusions about what I think is true and false in the Bible. I want to emphasize here that I'm not claiming that there is hard proof of these assertions, and I'm not trying to disprove anyone's beliefs here, but I think these conclusions are in line with modern scholarly opinion.

  • Abraham and Moses are fictional.
  • The stories about King David unifying Israel are probably based on historical events.
  • The concept of a monotheistic God originated around the time period of the Siege of Jerusalem, give or take a couple hundred years.
    • Monotheism gave priests an excuse for why Yahweh did not protect the Israelites (they were worshipping other gods).
    • Monotheism helped the priests keep the Israelites from assimilating into Babylon (like the bible warns about mixing with the Canaanites).
  • A lot of the modern Bible was written after the siege of Jerusalem, particularly the parts emphasizing that it's wrong to worship other gods, and the stories about the Israelites in Egypt.
  • Some early Bible stories, like the creation story and Noah's flood, were in part derived from Babylonian myths.

Just to reemphasize, I'm not trying to prove anything here, I'm just presenting this as my best guess about what's true in the Bible. I'm not trying to start an argument. Like much of history, there's a lot that we'll never know for sure, but I still like to see what the evidence indicates.


cbligerman said...

Abraham may be loosely based on a real person(s). If he did exist he most likely worshiped the Cannanite god "EL." Moses and the entire exodus story appears to be completely fictional and Judaism as we know it was invented during Babylonian captivity with some important changes following the Roman sacking of Jerusalem. The rise of the Levite priests or Cohenim was largely a social control which kept an educated demographic perpetually paid and fed. You may also want to research the eruption of Mt. Thera a Greek island now known as Santorini where it is speculated that some of the eruption's survivors went to Egypt and Palestine and had a lasting influence on those cultures.

Bennion said...

That's new information to me. Do you have any suggested sources where I could read about that theory?

cbligerman said...

I only recently learned of the Mt. Thera and Minoan connection to ancient Egypt and Palestine from Professor Ewa Wasilewska at the U's Anthro dept. The eruption also coincides with the biblical plagues of Egypt. Both the wiki and this site address it's significance in terms of geophysical impact but not the cultural aspects, though it was an important trading port and the site of one of the ancient Mediterranean's most advanced civilization. My professor mentioned an Italian archeologist who suggested that the arrival of the "sea people's" or Hykssos were in fact refugess of Thera and that there was a settlement in Palestine also. I will go back to my notes and see if I can find something more substantial. Nevertheless trade was always important to the area and so the ideas and legends presented in the old testament herald from many cultures, the story of Noah being a great example. Let me know how I can help you explore these topics further, of course I'm not a better expert than Google.

Bennion said...

Sorry, I should have clarified. I'm most interested in the idea that Abraham was loosely based on a real person, and what the evidence for that is. I'm checking into that, and the Minoan cultural influence.

I also wanted to repeat a Facebook comment made by my cousin Scott: "There is strong evidence for the statement on polytheistic Israelites prior to babylonian captivity. The most probable being that monotheism occurred after contact with the Zorastrians from Persia during their captivity. It was and advantageous political move to redefine themselves and their newfound nationalism under an all-powerful god exclusively partial to themselves. This would be around the time of literature developing enough to write down histories. The real history may include those returning from Babylon and accusing those who did not go of changing (apostasy) when the reverse may be the more accurate account!"

Thanks to both of you for adding some interesting detail.

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