Biblical History: The Faulty Criticism of Biblical Historicity

Article ID: DA111 | By: Paul L. Maier

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 27, number 2 (2004). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org.


The new criticism of the scriptural record is corrosive and categorical from beginning to end. It claims, for example, that there is no evidence that any such person as Abraham ever lived or even could have lived in its new version of ancient Israelite origins. There was no migration from Mesopotamia to any “Promised Land.” Stories about the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it argues, were cobbled together out of various bits of early local lore. Moses was no more historically real than Abraham, for there was no Israelite sojourn in Egypt and the Exodus was a fiction; nor did Joshua conquer the “Promised Land,” since the ancient Israelites were an indigenous culture already living in that land.

What about the monarchs Saul, David, and Solomon and their regional empires? Surely they were historical, weren’t they? No. According to this revisionism, Jerusalem priests in the eighth and seventh centuries BC probably invented them. In the words of Lazare, if David is historical, he was

not a mighty potentate whose power was felt from the Nile to the Euphrates but rather a freebooter who carved out what was at most a small duchy in the southern highlands around Jerusalem and Hebron. Indeed, the chief disagreement among scholars nowadays is between those who hold that David was a petty hilltop chieftain whose writ extended no more than a few miles in any direction and a small but vociferous band of “biblical minimalists” who maintain that he never existed at all.3

There never was a united Hebrew monarchy in this overcritical view, and, according to Finkelstein, the architectural accomplishments of David and Solomon should rather be ascribed to King Ahab of Israel. As for religious beliefs, monotheistic Judaism was itself a late development — again in contrast to biblical evidence — when also the heroic stories of the patriarchs and judges were crafted to show that Israel owned the land by rite of conquest. Probably not until we reach King Hezekiah in the eighth century BC do the extreme critics begin to grant historicity to the Old Testament narratives.

This attack on Old Testament Scripture is of a full-fledged, no-holds-barred variety. Such extreme views in­vite dismissal of this assault as the work of a cadre of sensation-seeking quasischolars whose radical revi­sionism almost guarantees attention in the media. This has been a trail well blazed, after all, by members of the so-called Jesus Seminar and their notorious votes on whether Jesus could have said or done something credited to Him in the Gospels. The more radical biblical minimalists certainly engage in sensationalism, but the balance of such scholars base their case almost entirely on what they deem to be the absence of archaeo­logical evidence that corroborates material in the earlier eras of the Old Testament. Because their contentions are supposedly based on academic scholarship, we must now examine their allegations more closely.

False Claims

Abraham a Myth? Early critics in the 1800s denied the existence of Abraham’s hometown, Ur of the Chaldees (Gen. 11:31). This continued until Sir Leonard Woolley’s systematic excavations from l922–34 uncovered the immense ziggurat or temple tower at Ur near the mouth of the Euphrates in Mesopotamia. The name “Abraham” appears in Mesopotamian records, and the various nationalities the patriarch encountered, as recorded in Genesis, are entirely consistent with the peoples known at that time and place. Other details in the biblical account regarding Abraham, such as the treaties he made with neighboring rulers and even the price of slaves, mesh well with what is known elsewhere in the history of the ancient Near East.4

No Migration from Mesopotamia? Semitic tribes of the time were continually moving into and out of Mesopotamia. In fact, Abraham’s recorded trek into the Promised Land along a route up the Euphrates valley to Haran in southern Anatolia, which has also been identified and excavated, and then down through Syria to Canaan is geographically accurate. Using that Fertile Crescent route was the only way to travel successfully from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean in those days.

The Patriarchs? Nothing in the Genesis account contradicts the nomadic way of life, replete with flocks and herds, that was characteristic of life in the nineteenth or eighteenth centuries BC. The agreements and con­tracts of the time, such as finding a bride from members of the same tribe and other customs, are well known elsewhere in the ancient Near East. To argue that the patriarchs did not exist because their names have not been found archaeologically is merely an argument from silence — the weakest form of argumentation that can be used. As fair-minded historians put it, “Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence.”

No Israelite Sojourn in Egypt or Exodus Therefrom? Critics make much of the supposed “fact” that there is no mention of the Hebrews in hieroglyphic inscriptions, no mention of Moses, and no records of such a mass population movement as claimed in the biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt. This “fact” is questionable. The famous Israel Stele (an inscribed stone or slab) of Pharaoh Merneptah (described more fully below) states, “Israel — his seed is not.” Furthermore, even if there were no mention whatever of the Hebrews in Egyptian records, this also would prove nothing, especially in view of the well-known Egyptian proclivity never to record reverses or defeats or anything that would embarrass the majesty of the ruling monarch. Would any pharaoh have the following words chiseled onto his monument: “Under my administration, a great horde of Hebrew slaves successfully escaped into the Sinai Desert when we tried to prevent them”?

The ancient Egyptians, in fact, transformed some of their reverses into “victories.” One of the most imposing monuments in Egypt consists of four-seated colossi of Rameses II overlooking the Nile (now Lake Nasser) at Abu-Simbel. Rameses erected the colossi to intimidate the Ethiopians to the south who had heard correctly that he had barely escaped with his life at the battle of Kadesh against the Hittites, and so they thought Egypt was ripe for invasion. The story told on the walls inside this monument, however, was that of a marvelous Egyptian victory!

No Moses? The very name Moses is Egyptian, as witness pharaonic names such as Thut-mose and Ra-meses. The ambient life as described in Genesis and Exodus is entirely consonant with what we know of ancient Egypt in the Hyksos and Empire periods: the food, the feasts, everyday life, customs, the names of locations, the local deities, and the like are familiar in both Hebrew and Egyptian literature.5

No Exodus? It is true that few remains of encampments or artifacts from the Exodus era have been discovered archaeologically in the Sinai, but a nomadic, tribal migration would hardly leave behind permanent stone foundations of imposing buildings en route. Hardly any archaeology is taking place in the Sinai, and if this changes, evidence of migration may very well be uncovered. Again, beware of the argument from silence.

No Conquest of Canaan by Joshua? The “Battle of Jericho” continues to be fought! When Dame Kathleen Kenyon excavated at Jericho in the 1950s, she claimed not to have found any collapsed walls or even evidence of a living city at Jericho during the time of Joshua’s invasion — nothing for him to conquer. She did, indeed, find an earlier, heavily fortified Jericho that c. 1550 BC was subject to a violent conquest with fallen walls and a burnt ash layer a yard thick, indicating destruction by fire. That, in her view, was before Joshua and the Israelites arrived.6 Critics immediately seized on her interpretation as solid evidence that Joshua’s conquest of Jericho must have been folklore.

Archaeologist Bryant G. Wood, however, editor of Bible and Spade, found that Kenyon had misdated her finds and that the destruction of Jericho actually took place in the 1400s BC when Joshua was very much on the scene, according to earlier (1400 rather than 1200 BC) datings of the Israelite invasion. In a brilliant 1990 article in BAR, Wood based his chronology on stratigraphy, pottery types, carbon-14 datings, and other evidence, including collapsed walls, to show a rather surprising archaeological confirmation of the biblical detail recorded in Judges 6 and following.7

Kings David and Solomon Barely Historical or Even Mythical? The critics again rely much too heavily on the argument from silence or absence. They contend that for all the wealth and grandeur of the reigns of David and Solomon, some of the golden goblets and other luxurious items from their palaces should have come to light in the excavations, but they have not. Lazare complains, “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.”8

This contention, however, is hopelessly flawed because of one simple fact: Jerusalem has been destroyed and rebuilt some 15 to 20 times since the days of David and Solomon, and each conquest took its toll on valuable artifacts. What, moreover, did Belshazzar set out as tableware for his famous feast in Babylon (Dan. 5:2–3)? Gold and silver cups that Nebuchadnezzar had plundered from the Temple in Jerusalem!

As for David’s name itself, the record is no longer silent. In 1993, archaeologist Avraham Biran, digging at Tel Dan in northern Israel, discovered a victory stele in three stone chunks on which David’s name is inscribed, the first archaeological reference to David outside of the Old Testament. The Aramaic inscription contains a boast by the king of Damascus (probably Hazael) that he had defeated the king of Israel (probably Joram, son of Ahab) and the king of “the house of David” (probably Ahaziah, son of Jehoram, c. 842 BC).9

This discovery alone should have quieted minimalist claims that there was no David, but never underestimate the rigidity of minds locked onto a course of revisionism. They are still desperately trying to retranslate the message on the stele or even claim that the name David is a forgery — folly compounding folly!

King Ahab of Israel As the Master Builder of the Temple Rather than David and Solomon? This is a favorite conclusion of archaeologist Finkelstein, but his archaeological time grid differs from the standard model by some 150 years, which is — not surprisingly — precisely the difference between David at 1000BC and Ahab at 850 BC.

One is also struck by the sudden silence of the revisionist critics concerning the record from about the time of King Hezekiah (fl. 700 BC) on. At that point, evidently, the Old Testament instantly becomes “more historical” for them. This concession, of course, is forced on them because of the overwhelming number of correlations from archaeology, records of surrounding nations, and ancient history in general that fully corroborate the biblical evidence. The Assyrians did not conquer mythical northern Israelites in 722 BC, nor did Nebuchadnezzar deport into the Babylonian captivity a legendary, folkloric band of Jews who never existed. We leave it to the critics to explain how fact suddenly emerges out of supposed fantasy in the Old Testament.

Wrong Methodology

In dealing with specifics such as the above, the errors in content, procedure, and even logic employed by the revisionist critics are apparent and might be listed as follows:

1. Overusing arguments from silence or absence of archaeological evidence. Such arguments have often been rendered moot by subsequent discoveries that provide such “missing” evidence.

2. Assuming that archaeology can tell us more than is warranted by the finds. Archaeology is not the only source of evidence, for it must also be supplemented by relevant data from both sacred and secular history.

3. Assuming that archaeology is dispassionate and objective, when, in fact, some excavators are quite the opposite; unfortunately, recent political pressures have also impinged on the discipline.

4. Assuming that there is agreement among archaeologists as to time grids involving uncovered strata and the artifacts therein. In fact, their interpretations of excavated evidence often differ widely.

5. Suggesting that revisionist criticism represents the latest and best scholarly and archaeological research on biblical origins today. In sober fact, recent issues of journals such as BAR and Bible and Spade are crammed with criticism of the minimalist position, and the debate between traditional and radical views among biblical scholars continues to rage.

6. Condoning reports, such as Lazare’s in Harper’s, that are so hopelessly one-sided that bias screams out in every other paragraph.

7. Opting for sensation rather than sense, as is the case with extremists in any discipline.

8. Using results very selectively rather than accounting for all the evidence. Failure to evaluate evidence on the “other side” or even misrepresenting it results in torque, not truth.

This is not to claim that there are no problems in the Old Testament record; even traditionalists will admit that there certainly are. We can all fondly wish that the author of Genesis had given us the names of more contemporary associates of Abraham so that the whole patriarchal era could be dated with more precision; and why, oh, why, don’t we have the actual names of the Egyptian kings involved in the Oppression and the Exodus rather than only their generic title, “pharaoh”? Later on, the Old Testament readily gives us the proper names of pharaohs such as Shishak (fl. 920 BC, 1 Kings 14:25 f.) and Necho (fl. 600 BC, 2 Kings 23:29 ff.). Had such individual names appeared in Exodus, we would have been spared hundreds of tomes and thousands of articles debating their identity. We all crave, moreover, far more specific detail about the Hebrews in the period pre-1000 BC and would likely sacrifice several chapters of Jewish ceremonial law in Leviticus and Deuteronomy in exchange for this description.

Perhaps, though, we are asking too much of early sacred records. No religion or culture on earth has, in fact, more specificity in its earliest historical records than the Torah, and it is always the case that the earliest records of any peoples will be more spotty and compressed than the later ones. We certainly see in the Old and New Testaments, not a progressive historicity in the sense that the earlier records are not historical and the later records are — as the radical revisionists claim — but rather a progressive historical specificity.

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